Of Schemes and Memes

Best of Nature Network, NPG staff blogs and Scitable: 26 Nov – 2 Dec 2011

Status update: Facebook good for your heart?

That’s the theory behind the Social Heart Study, a new social network-based project aimed at understanding how Facebook friendships contribute to cardiovascular health. The Spoonful of Medicine gives more details on the project:

The Social Heart Study went live last week and is still in beta mode. But eventually, the organizers hope to recruit a cohort of more than a million adults who are willing to pour their hearts out (so to speak) for science. All this personal information should form a huge online database for observational and interventional studies into cardiovascular health, and the organizers hope it will reveal new ways to prevent heart disease.


You can find out the inspiration for this project and more information in their report.

Continuing the Facebook theme, Ian Fyfe, Scitable’s guest blogger, describes how the amount of Facebook friends a person has correlates with the structure of brain regions involved in social interactions. In his post, Ian looks a little closer at this research:

The researchers took brain scans of volunteers and measured the volumes of certain brain regions which have previously been linked with social behaviour in humans. These measurements were then compared with individuals’ answers to questions about their social life, including how many friends they have on social networking site, Facebook. They found that the volumes of some brain regions were bigger in individuals with more Facebook friends.

Find out more in Ian’s post.

Rise of the robots

This week, the Nature’s News blog reveal that a soft robot, which can crawl across surfaces and under obstacles, has been created by a research team based in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Led by chemist George Whitesides of Harvard University, the team’s robot eschews the hard joints, hydraulics and motors of current robot technology in favour of low-pressure air. Inspired by starfish, squid and worms, their squishy four-armed creation lacks any kind of skeleton. Instead, air is pumped through valves and tubes made of elastomeric polymers to one of five pneumatic sections. By alternatively inflating and deflating the four leg ‘pneu-nets’ and the fifth body section, the robot can move at a stately 13 metres an hour (shown here, and in another video below).

You can see a video of one of these robots below.

Continue to the post for more videos and explanations.

Discoveries about the universe…

This week’s guest post on Soapbox Science is an interview with Michael Brooks. As well as holding a PhD in quantum physics, Michael is an author, journalist and broadcaster. As part of an ongoing cycle of lectures, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, together with the British Council, recently invited Michael to discuss the origins of the universe

North by Southwest 50 – Michael Brooks at The City of Arts and Sciences by British Council

You can read snippets from the interview transcript in the post.


In her latest post, The economics of tree swallow brood sex ratios GrrlScientist reveals that a demographic imbalance in the sexes is not purely a human phenomenon; it is found throughout the animal kingdom:

Several studies have shown that offspring sex ratios apparently are not due to chance, in birds at least. In one especially elegant study, female Gouldian finches, Erythrura (Chloebia) gouldiae, choose the sex of their chicks based on the plumage colour of the father’s head. Further, a “mixed marriage” in this species causes the female to experience very high stress levels, which may be the triggering mechanism whereby she exerts control over her chicks’ sex. But might other factors be involved in a female bird’s choice over her chicks’ sexes?

GrrlScientist also explains why tree swallow’s sex ratios are an economic balancing act with far-reaching evolutionary consequences.


Adult tree swallow, Tachycineta bicolor, flying in central New York, USA.

Happy bats

Anne-Marie Hodge explains that it is not just humans who take advantage of the natural substances in the bark and roots of plants:

A new study reveals that humans are not the only species that are able to exploit A. schimperitrees for weaponization. In a recent issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Kingdon et al. (2011) report that the African crested rat ( Lophiomys imhausi ) has hit upon a strikingly similar strategy. It chews on the bark of A. shimperi, and then licks a specific strip of long hairs along its back. Once this poisonous saliva has been applied, the rat contracts and relaxes muscles along its back, which distributes the toxic slime along the hairs. In addition, the hairs themselves are specially adapted to absorb the poison through their uniquely porous surfaces.


Advice on choosing the right lab

Sohini Mazumdar is back after a year and her first post is on a topic which most students don’t really pay attention to (even though they really, really should!) – choosing the right lab. She imparts some of her advice based on her experiences from when she went through the process:

4. Lab culture-Serious/hardcore" scientists dont like to consider this.. but it is critical. You are going to be spending the next 4-5 years of your life here, if you hate your lab you will be miserable. Lab culture comes in two flavors- 1: "is everyone in your lab a workaholic?, does your mentor monitor when you time stamp in and out? (eek!), is this going to take over your entire life? and 2: “Is your lab social? Are people friendly and collaborative?”.

Read on for more advice and feel free to add you own in the comment thread.


Viktor Poor’s Stripped Science blog will be four years old on Saturday! To celebrate, check out his latest cartoon….

One bacterium finds something strange in the Petri dish:



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