The Bicycle Problem That Nearly Broke Mathematics

For much of their existence, bicycles have largely remained unchanged. One group of engineers is exploring how it might be possible to build a better bike.

Source: Nature
Published: Jul 20, 2016
Length: 12 minutes (3,065 words)

The Spy Who Loved Frogs

A young scientist retraces the work of Edward Taylor, a prolific herpetologist (a zoologist who studies reptiles and amphibians) who also led a double life as a spy:

“Taylor was called to duty again in 1944, when he was 54 and war raged in the Pacific. According to records in the US National Archives, he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to train agents in Sri Lanka — then a British territory that provided ready access to Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and other areas that the Japanese had infiltrated. Scientific work, an OSS officer explained to one of Taylor’s superiors, was ‘excellent cover.’

“Taylor taught jungle survival at Camp Y, a steamy settlement on the coast. With a penetrating stare and a lantern jaw, he seemed more imposing than his 1.8 metres. In his spare time, he occasionally dodged gunfire to nab specimens, which he studied for two monographs published after the war. ‘Have just described five new forms of blind snakes from the island,’ he wrote to S. Dillon Ripley, a young ornithologist who served with him and would later lead the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In a later letter, he offered ‘some 500 species’ of mollusc shells to the Smithsonian.”

Source: Nature
Published: Sep 11, 2013
Length: 12 minutes (3,211 words)

Medical Research: Cell Division

Fifty years ago, a microbiologist named Leonard Hayflick developed a strain of cells named WI-38 from the lungs of an aborted fetus. The strain of cells have been used to produce life-savings vaccines worldwide, but have also had a history riddled with controversy:

“The cells have played ‘a very critical role in studying cellular senescence,’ adds Rugang Zhang, who works in this field at the Wistar Institute. That’s because they so reliably stop replicating after about 50 divisions and because scientists have, over time, built up a wealth of knowledge about the reasons why. In the 1990s, for instance, WI-38 was used to discover the most widely used marker of cellular senescence10. More recently, Zhang’s team used the cells to discover a pathway by which the complex of DNA and proteins known as chromatin controls cell proliferation11.

“But the controversies surrounding the cells have rumbled on. Back in July 1973, Hayflick received a call at home from a senior medical officer at NASA. Skylab 3 had taken off several hours earlier from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bound for the Space Station. The NASA physician was contending with anti-abortion demonstrators who were protesting about the presence aboard of WI-38 cells, which were going to be used to detect the effects of zero-gravity on cell growth and structure. Once Hayflick explained that the abortion from which the cells were derived had occurred legally in Sweden, the physician said that he would defuse the situation — but concerns among anti-abortionists about WI-38 have lasted to this day.”

Source: Nature
Published: Jun 28, 2013
Length: 17 minutes (4,468 words)

Scientific Families: Dynasty

A look at ecologist Bob Paine, whose mentorship has produced a long line of influential scientists throughout his five-decade career:

“Soon, Paine’s students were growing up and embarking on careers of their own. Few have spawned as rich a legacy as Jane Lubchenco and Bruce Menge. They met as graduate students in Paine’s lab in 1969, married two years later and began a partnership that has generated more than 31 students and 19 postdocs. After the pair left Paine’s lab, they took his experimental approach to the US east coast; she focused on plants and herbivores, while he concentrated on predators. By enclosing, excluding and removing species at different points along the New England shore, they showed that fierce waves can keep predators such as starfish at bay, allowing mussels to dominate. But in sheltered areas, predators kept mussels under control, allowing Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), a type of red alga, to take over. The work revealed how the environment can control interactions between species.”

Author: Ed Yong
Source: Nature
Published: Jan 16, 2013
Length: 13 minutes (3,293 words)

Stress: The Roots of Resilience

Scientists are trying to uncover why some people are better able to recover from trauma than others:

“After Ebaugh crawled up the rocky riverbank, a truck driver picked her up, took her to a nearby convenience store and bought her a cup of hot tea. Police, when they arrived, were sympathetic and patient. The doctor at the hospital, she says, treated her like a daughter. A close friend took her in for a time. And her family offered reassurance and emotional support. ‘For the first month, I almost had to tell people to stop coming because I was so surrounded by friends and community,’ she says.

“Studies of many kinds of trauma have shown that social support is a strong buffer against PTSD and other psychological problems. James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has done a series of experiments in which women lie in an fMRI scanner and see ‘threat cues’ on a screen. They are told that between 4 and 10 seconds later, they may receive a small electric shock on the ankle. The cue triggers sensory arousal and activates brain regions associated with fear and anxiety, but when the women hold the hands of their husbands2 or friends3, these responses diminish.

“Social interactions are complex and involve many brain circuits and chemicals; no one knows exactly why they provide relief.”

Source: Nature
Published: Oct 10, 2012
Length: 9 minutes (2,472 words)

African Agriculture: Dirt Poor

The key to solving hunger in Africa starts with improving the soil. An overview of agricultural subsidies and the debate over whether the best approach is through inorganic fertilizers or greener, cheaper (but more difficult) solutions like no-till farming:

“Fertilizer use in Africa is at the mercy of precarious politics. Although Rwanda’s fertilizer programme is growing, Malawi’s has started to fall apart as the country’s economy has collapsed and its international relations have deteriorated. Many of Malawi’s biggest donors, including the UK government’s Department for International Development, suspended budgetary support to the nation last year because of concerns about governance and the Malawian government’s refusal to devalue its currency as recommended by the International Monetary Fund.

“Although the United Kingdom reinstated some funding to help transport fertilizer, many Malawians couldn’t purchase it this year. Changuya walked for an hour and a half to the depot in town, only to find that all the subsidized fertilizer was gone and she would not have been able to afford it anyway.”

Source: Nature
Published: Mar 28, 2012
Length: 10 minutes (2,531 words)

The Split Brain: A Tale of Two Halves

Researchers study a small group of patients who underwent surgery that split their brains:

“Through studies of this group, neuroscientists now know that the healthy brain can look like two markedly different machines, cabled together and exchanging a torrent of data. But when the primary cable is severed, information — a word, an object, a picture — presented to one hemisphere goes unnoticed in the other. Michael Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the godfather of modern split-brain science, says that even after working with these patients for five decades, he still finds it thrilling to observe the disconnection effects first-hand. ‘You see a split-brain patient just doing a standard thing — you show him an image and he can’t say what it is. But he can pull that same object out of a grab-bag,’ Gazzaniga says. ‘Your heart just races!'”

Source: Nature
Published: Mar 24, 2012
Length: 13 minutes (3,477 words)

Human Experiments: First, Do Harm

In the 1940s, U.S. doctors led experiments that intentionally infected thousands of Guatemalans with venereal diseases. A closer look at how it happened, and who knew:

“John Cutler, the young investigator who led the Guatemalan experiments, had the full backing of US health officials, including the surgeon general.

“‘Cutler thought that what he was doing was really important, and he wasn’t some lone gunman,’ says Susan Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, whose discovery of Cutler’s unpublished reports on the experiments led to the public disclosure of the research.”

Source: Nature
Published: Feb 8, 2012
Length: 14 minutes (3,510 words)

Chimpanzee Research on Trial

“How do we get industry to be forthcoming about their use of chimpanzees?” a slide read. “Could we get at least a few solid examples of how the use of chimpanzees has truncated the time to discovery?” And “When we talk about time and lives saved by using chimpanzees, can we provide actual time span data or numbers?”

Source: Nature
Published: Jun 15, 2011
Length: 14 minutes (3,501 words)

The Radical

By day, Joseph Harris studied potential treatments for gastrointestinal cancer — work that invariably required the use of animal models. By night, he crusaded against such animal research, sabotaging companies with links to it. Within a month, Harris would be caught vandalizing another company. Ultimately, he would become the first person in the United Kingdom to be convicted under a law intended to crack down on activist extremism.

Source: Nature
Published: Feb 23, 2011
Length: 9 minutes (2,460 words)