Thursday, September 3, 2015

POSTED: Friday, June 8, 2012, 11:12 AM

The tropical mantis shrimp is not only beautiful, it’s powerful, using a club-like appendage to pound open clam shells and the heads of fish. Engineers at UC Riverside are studying the material properties of the “club” down to the nanoscale to figure out how the shrimp manages to use it without hurting itself.  The published their results in this week's issue of Science. From UCR:

The bright orange fist-like club of the mantis shrimp, or stomatopod, a 4-inch long crustacean found in tropical waters, accelerates underwater faster than a 22-caliber bullet. Repeated blows can destroy mollusk shells and crab exoskeletons, both of which have been studied for decades for their impact-resistant qualities.

The power of the mantis shrimp is exciting, but David Kisailus, an assistant professor at the Bourns College of Engineering, and his collaborators, were interested in what enabled the club to withstand 50,000 high-velocity strikes on prey during its lifespan. Essentially, how does something withstand 50,000 bullet impacts?

Faye Flam @ 11:12 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, June 6, 2012, 5:40 PM

Ray Bradbury, who died at 91, was one of my favorite writers when I was in my teens and early 20s. Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451 were all classics and his unforgettable short story “A Sound of Thunder” made the world stop and think. That was the story in which a time traveller inadvertently crushes a butterfly - an accident with far-reaching consequences. 

Somewhere along the way I’d also purchased a Bradbury writing guide called “Zen and the Art of Writing”.   

For reasons I can’t explain, I pulled it off my shelf last November and read the whole thing, and it helped me get in the spirit of blogging. Newspaper deadlines can be stressful enough without having to think about producing blog posts nearly every day. There’s no editor for blog posts. We’re out there on our own.  I was scared.

Faye Flam @ 5:40 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, June 5, 2012, 12:26 PM

Here’s a story on bad science that ran on the Inquirer's front page today (Tuesday). I got the idea from a fascinating paper in which researchers created a test case to show how dubious social science could pass acceptable standards of statistical significance. Others say the problem extends to medical research as well. Read the whole story here.

Would you believe a scientific paper that said listening to the Beatles song "When I'm 64" made people get younger?

It was tested by experiment, and the result came out with "statistical significance," which is the gold standard for incorporating new findings into the established scientific literature.

Faye Flam @ 12:26 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, June 4, 2012, 3:54 PM

F.F. People write hate mail for all kinds of reasons. It’s not written entirely by fundamentalists with religious objections to science.  I can never predict what will come over the transom. Part of the problem here is that I hired a hate mail responder and he’s been slacking off on the job. I woke him up and asked him to offer his viewpoint on this little morsel that came in last week:

I don't really want to bang on you but this article is offensive in its ignorance. Any second year college student would know that you are crediting other people with Noam Chomsky's claim to fame. Literally, Chomsky's entire academic career was based on his theory that human ability to organize and use language and grammar was a native quality not learned and that it most likely was possessed by other mammals. Prior to Chomsky, a consensus orthodoxy had language and grammar being a learned ability from culture. Chomsky basically told them the world was round. He lays out numerous reasons why he was led to this conclusions and he changed everyone's mind instantly. It was the most ground breaking discovery in modern linguistics and shaped entire fields of study since, including this experiment. Because you don't make the proper connection, the article comes off as crude and unlearned, or in a more modern description, something only a blogger would write and not be embarrassed about. You should be studying, not having a public voice.

Higgs: You woke me up for that? Well, now that I’m up, I might as well deal with it. Dear Sir, I believe you are being a touch insincere when you say you don’t want to “bang on” my co-blogger. If that were the case it would be quite easy for you to resist pushing the send button. I’d also like to call your attention to the dozens of other stories on the same study in the New York Times, BBC and other news outlets. We could not find a single one that mentioned Dr. Chomsky. There’s a reason for this.

Faye Flam @ 3:54 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Saturday, June 2, 2012, 10:10 AM

This is my column for next week. It will also appear in the Health and Science section of Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer:

It’s nearly impossible to write objectively about the science of human kindness, cooperation, and altruism if you are, in fact, a human being. That’s especially true now that there’s a rift in the evolution community over two competing theories to explain why we’re nice or, in technical terms, eusocial.

Since the best way to deal with bias is disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve had more vicious hate mail than usual this week, and so when I hear the world eusocial, I think my part of the universe is mal-social. When the scientists talk about understanding why we’re nice, I say, “where?”

Faye Flam @ 10:10 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Saturday, June 2, 2012, 9:56 AM

It’s not too soon to start looking for eye protection and an unobstructed view to the west. This Tuesday Venus will eclipse the sun for the last time until 2117. My colleague Tom Avril wrote this fascinating story about the way David Rittenhouse and other 16th century astronomers used a transit to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Here’s what Rittenhouse wrote about the sight: "Imagination cannot form any thing more beautifully serene and quiet, than was the air during the whole time; nor did I ever see the Sun's limb more perfectly defined, or more free from any tremulous motion."

On the East Coast, the best viewing is from 6 pm until sunset. If you plan to be near Philadelphia you might want to check out this event at the Frainklin Institute. They'll make sure your eyes are safe.

Faye Flam @ 9:56 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 5:35 PM
Researched show that people can tell the difference between young, middle-aged and old peoples’ body odors. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

When psychologist Johan Lundstrom decided to test whether there really was an “old people smell” he got good news and bad news. Unfortunately, he found, people can tell the difference between young, middle-aged and old peoples’ body odors. The good news is people aren’t very good at telling which odors came from which age group – they could only tell they were different. Also in the bright side: women smell no worse as they age and men get nicer smelling after 75.  

Lundstrom, who works at the University of Pennsylvania and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, said he decided to investigate this matter when giving a recent talk at a retirement home near Philadelphia. He smelled something familiar that took him back to his childhood. “As soon as I stepped in the home I recognized an odor that I’d smelled in Sweden when my mother was working as a nurse in a retirement home,” he said. How, he wondered, could you have the same odor in two different populations on two different continents?  

At first, he did what most of the rest of us do – he used Google. That turned up some anecdotal reports about old-age smell, and the fact that the Japanese even have a word for it – kareishu.

Faye Flam @ 5:35 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, May 29, 2012, 1:14 PM

In a video clip that's made the rounds lately, Richard Feynman puts the essence of science in a nutshell: If your idea doesn’t agree with experiment or observation, it’s wrong. The sound bite was clipped from a much longer lecture, in which the famous physicist offered some important insights into the process of science.

And indeed, getting at the truth is complicated because it's not always obvious what agrees or disagrees with nature. If it were clear-cut, you’d never see two titans such as Richard Dawkins and E.O.Wilson in raging disagreement. But they are.    

The Dawkins/Wilson war is over the roots of cooperative and altruistic behavior. I touched on the controversy more than a year ago in this column. There, I took on a question of more general interest: Do humans need to believe in God to be good? Both sides agree that we don’t. We’re social animals and we evolved to be cooperative and, to some extent, altruistic.

Faye Flam @ 1:14 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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