Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Best of nature.com blogs, SciLogs.com and Scitable: 18 – 24 August

Curiosity gets rolling on Mars

Daniel Cressey reports in the News Blog, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has made tracks, literally:

The $2.5 billion probe, which researchers hope will answer questions about whether Mars could have supported life, sent back this picture showing its first movement from the Red Planet yesterday. After taking 16 minutes to perform what NASA calls “combined forward, turn and reverse segments” the laser-armed rover ended up 6 metres from where it landed. You can see a video simulation of its test drive here. The rover’s first proper drive in a few days will see it head for a spot some 400 metres east.

“We have a fully functioning mobility system with lots of amazing exploration ahead,” says Matt Heverly, NASA’s head driver for Curiosity.


If you want to know more about Curiosity, then check out Nature’s special page on the vehicle and the video in this post.

Test, learn, adapt – a scientific approach to public policy

Most people are in favour of evidence-based policy.  So if evidence-based policy is what we want, what’s the best way to make it happen? Dr. Prateek Buch, a research scientist and public engagement professional shares his thoughts in this week’s Soapbox Science guest post:

According to a Cabinet Office paper by Laura Haynes and Owain Service of the Behavioural Insights team, co-authored by Dr. Ben Goldacre and Prof David Torgerson, the best way is to conduct randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that pitch interventions against current best practice.

They propose a nine-step framework for RCTs of public policy that they call ‘test, learn, adapt,’ and as a scientist with a keen interest in public policy it’s an approach I and many others like me will wholeheartedly endorse. Any similarity with the title of my own obscure blog about science and politics (consider, evaluate, act) is pure coincidence (as any robust study would no doubt prove), but there is much in the paper that gives voice to the kind of approach many of us wish was more widespread in public policy-making.

Do you agree with Dr. Prateek Buch? Share your thoughts in the comment thread. 

Sira barbet, Capito fitzpatricki, Seeholzer, Winger, Harvey, Cáceres & Weckstein, 2012, photographed at the Río Shinipo locality in Cerros del Sira in the Ucayali Region, Peru (South America).

New species of barbet discovered in Peru

ScilLogs blogger GrrlScientist, reveals in her latest post, a new species of barbet has been discovered in Peru:

This is a Sira barbet, Capito fitzpatricki, a recently-discovered and newly-described member of the American barbet family, Capitonidae. Barbets, close relatives to the toucans, are small, chubby and colourful near-passerines that live in moist forests throughout much of Central and South America. Barbets are residential frugivores and insectivores.

 The Sira barbet was discovered in the montane cloud forest in the upper Rio Tzipani watershed in the Cerros del Sira range of the eastern Andes (figure 1).

Learn more about this exciting discovery in Grrl’s post. 

August’s SoNYC: #PhDelta

Tuesday night saw the thirteenth installment of the monthly Science Online NYC (SoNYC) discussion series. This month’s event was  held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences and the topic for discussion was the science PhD – Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? You can see a Storify collating the online conversation here.

In preparation of the discussion, we also ran a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science  hearing from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been.  You can find a summary of every guest post, here.

Finally, you can also follow the online conversation on Twitter using the #PhDelta hashtag. Join in the discussion and share your thoughts.

Jailed Iranian physicist loses appeal against 10-year sentence

Michele Catanzaro announces in the News Blog, Tehran’s court of appeal confirmed last week the 10-year sentence imposed on Omid Kokabee, a physics PhD student who has been in prison in Iran since February 2011:

Omid Kokabee has been imprisoned in Iran since February 2011.


Kokabee is an Iranian student affiliated with the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Spain and the University of Texas at Austin. In February 2011 he was arrested while leaving Tehran after a visit to his family and accused of communicating with a hostile government and illegal earnings. In May he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Kokabee has denied all charges. His lawyer, Saeed Khalili, says that he has not been allowed to discuss the case with his client, and the appeal court’s response to his 10-page submission consisted of just a few sentences. Several scientific organizations have written open letters and launched petitions asking for a fair trial for Kokabee or asserting his innocence.

Hear more about this news in Michele’s blog post. 

Nurses on trial & T-ing up against tumors

This month’s Nature Medicine podcast discusses how employing nurses to lead clinical trials could improve patient recruitment, and how T helper 9 cells could hold the secret to fighting deadly skin cancer.

 Is the planetary alignment picture a hoax?

Mohammed Yahia explains in the House of Wisdom blog, over the past two days the picture below went viral across the Internet, especially on social networks. The image claims that on 3rd December, 2012, Mercury, Venus and Saturn will be aligned in the night sky, with each of the three planets showing exactly above the tip of one of the three pyramids of Giza:

I kept getting several messages from friends asking if this is true or just another hoax image.

A little research online gives a straight answer. While the image itself is very cool, it is not entirely true. The image was created and published online by Charles Marcello on World Mysteries Blog. Marcello used the free software Stellarium to create the image, and claims that this event is very rare and happens every 2,737 years. The blog post hints at a possible spiritual significance to this phenomenon, and, with the year 2012 being the end of the Mayan calender, there is much interest in these events.

However,  Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy blog on Discover Magazine points out the many problems with this picture and why it is more or less a hoax.

Find out more in Mohammed’s post.

First US stem cell trial for autistic children

This week the first US stem cell trial for autistic children launched, explains Kathleen Raven in the Spoonful of Medicine blog:

Families with autistic children must navigate a condition where questions outnumber the answers, and therapies remain sparse and largely ineffective. A clinical trial being conducted by the Sutter Neuroscience Institute in Sacramento, California to address this situation began recruiting participants today for a highly experimental stem cell therapy for autism. The institute plans to find 30 autistic children between ages 2 and 7 with cord blood banked at the privately-run Cord Blood Registry, located about 100 miles west of the institute.

Continue to the post to find out more.

Robots in the job market! 

The number of graduate students opting to take courses in basic sciences such as microbiology, biotechnology and other specialties has been in declining in India, reveals Samuel JK Abraham in the Trade Secrets blog:

On the other hand, the increase in automation and usage of robots has slowly eroded the larger job market. Examples here are Taiwanese manufacturers considering employing robots in assembly lines for producing electronic devices, or Japanese homes for the elderly using  robots to help entertain and assist the retirees.

However, there are a few areas where humans cannot be made redundant, find out more in Samuel’s post.

Bird of the Week

Finally, this week’s bird, featured by Eric Sawyer over at Scitable, is the barn swallow:

Barn swallows can be found darting about foraging for flying insects and flying low to the water as well. They love to build their muddy nest cups under bridges, docks, and the like. And they’re not afraid to defend them by dive-bombing unsuspecting undergraduate molecular biologists-in-training.

 They have deeply forked tails that are a product of sexual selection.

Walter Siegmund (via Wikimedia)


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