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Thoughts on Essays

Posted: June 26, 2017, 7:39 pm |
I’ve recently been doing some of every academic’s favorite activity – marking student essays (papers).

Here’s a few observations on essays and on marking them.

1. Marking Essays is Subjective

This is a bit of a truism: it’s fairly obvious that not everyone will agree on how to grade an essay down to the exact mark. Unlike with, say, a multiple-choice exam, marking an essay is not a mechanical process. But it’s easy to forget this when the marks are there in black and white (or r

Music: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Posted: June 26, 2017, 5:12 pm |
Our lives are awash in tunes. Songs are blasted through the radio, piped into supermarkets, they waft through the air at public gatherings and soundtracks can make or break a blockbuster movie.

Humans seem obsessed with melody and rhythm. But when did it begin in hominin history? What purpose does it fulfill? And does music have a dark side?

The first bands started gigging at least tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists have found 40,000-year-old flutes carved from bird bones. The

Sex Sells? No, It Doesn’t

Posted: June 23, 2017, 6:41 pm |
Chiseled abs and bikinis can sell just about anything, right? According to the minds behind those Carl’s Jr. ads—and countless others—you’d think that’d be true.

This idea that “sex sells” has hung around for more than a century, and by this point it’s almost accepted as a doctrine. And those are exactly the types of claims researchers love putting to the test.

John Wirtz, an advertising professor at the University of Illinois, conducted a meta-analysis of 78 peer-reviewed studies that

Forget The Sharks: How 47 Meters Down Fails Dive Science

Posted: June 23, 2017, 5:12 pm |
This is a guest post by Jake Buehler, who just so happens to be an AAUS certified scientific diver as well as a science writer based in the Seattle area. He blogs over at Sh*t You Didn’t Know About Biology, which is full of his “unrepentantly celebratory insights into life on Earth’s under-appreciated, under-acknowledged, and utterly amazing stories.”

Summer is finally here in the Northern Hemisphere. The days are long, the weather is warm, and the water is inviting. It’s also time for o

Massive, ‘Dead’ Galaxy Puzzles Astronomers

Posted: June 23, 2017, 3:38 pm |
Objects in the distant universe appear small and difficult to see – unless they’re sitting behind a cosmic magnifying glass.

That’s exactly the case for MACS 2129-1, a galaxy lensed by a massive foreground galaxy cluster. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have managed to catch a glimpse of this unusual object, which appears to be an old, “dead” galaxy that’s already stopped making new stars just a few billion years after the Big Bang. Not only is this galaxy finished with its

Why Do Bird Eggs Come in So Many Shapes?

Posted: June 22, 2017, 9:18 pm |
When something is described as egg-shaped, the ubiquitous hen’s egg typically comes to mind. But for birds, eggs come in myriad shapes: owl eggs look like ping-pong balls, hummingbird eggs are shaped like jelly beans, swift eggs are pointed at one end like a pear.

So what’s the reason?

Biologists have been asking that question for quite some time, and their hypotheses are perhaps just as varied as the eggs themselves. Scientists in the past have concluded that cliff-dwelling birds lay

A Better Touch Screen, Inspired by Moth Eyes

Posted: June 22, 2017, 6:47 pm |
Moth eyes and lotus leaves may be important to the future of touch screens.

Researchers from the University of Central Florida and National Taiwan University designed an anti-reflective coating that was inspired by moth eyes. The coating reflects about 10 times less light than the best anti-glare technique in commercial use.
Optical Properties
The ability to see your phone’s display is a competition between display brightness and reflected ambient light. Relying on extra bright screens

Physicists Tackle the Wobbly Suitcase Problem

Posted: June 21, 2017, 5:11 pm |
Rolling luggage is both a blessing and a curse for hurried travelers. While we no longer need gym-toned biceps to heft our sundries through the airport, the slightest misstep can send a two-wheeled suitcase rocking and spinning into an uncontrollable disaster. Now, scientists think they know why rolling suitcases are so annoyingly unsteady at exactly the wrong times.

French researchers, writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, say that the problem comes down to simple physics. A

Persistent, Deadly Heat at the Equator Could Be the Norm by 2100

Posted: June 20, 2017, 8:09 pm |
Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona, the temperature kept some planes grounded.

Phoenix was projected to reach of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a near-record for the desert city, and hot enough that small planes cannot generate enough lift to fly. Phoenix and other cities have experienced similar conditions before, but only rarely—for now. The grounded passengers got to sit inside an air-conditioned terminal, at least. But in other parts of the world where temperatures are set to soar regularly above 1

Meet What’s-His-Name, the Apollo Astronaut You’ve Never Heard Of

Posted: June 20, 2017, 7:33 pm |
There are some astronauts we know a lot about, or at least whose names are familiar, like Neil or Buzz (as in Armstrong and Aldrin, the first men on the Moon). More nerdy space fans will also recognize the names Gene and Pete (as is Cernan and Conrad). But what about Donn, is Eisele? Donn Eisele — whose last name is pronounced Eyes-lee, not Eye-zell — is a fascinating character who flew on the first Apollo mission but most people have never heard of him.
Like all his peers, because NASA’s ast

When Did People Start Using Money?

Posted: June 20, 2017, 6:49 pm |
Sometimes you run across a grimy, tattered dollar bill that seems like it’s been around since the beginning of time. Assuredly it hasn’t, but the history of human beings using cash currency does go back a long time – 40,000 years.

Scientists have tracked exchange and trade through the archaeological record, starting in Upper Paleolithic when groups of hunters traded for the best flint weapons and other tools. First, people bartered, making direct deals between two parties of desirable obj

Kepler’s Final Crop of Promising Exoplanet Discoveries

Posted: June 20, 2017, 5:13 pm |
The newest Kepler catalog draws out 219 new planetary candidates and infers that 10 of them may be habitable — doubling the number of planetary candidates in the habitable zone of their star. The Kepler catalog now stands at 2,335 confirmed planets and 4,034 strong candidates.

This catalog marks the final results of the first Kepler mission, which stared at the same portion of the sky for three-and-a-half years before a busted reaction wheel forced NASA to pivot the mission to other forms

Is Science Broken, Or Is It Self-Correcting?

Posted: June 19, 2017, 7:59 pm |
Media coverage of scientific retractions risks feeding a narrative that academic science is broken – a narrative which plays into the hands of those who want to cut science funding and ignore scientific advice.

So say Joseph Hilgard and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in a book chapter called Science as “Broken” Versus Science as “Self-Correcting”: How Retractions and Peer-Review Problems Are Exploited to Attack Science

Hilgard and Jamieson discuss two retraction scandals that readers of th

The Human Project Aims to Track Every Aspect of Life

Posted: June 19, 2017, 7:38 pm |
If you smoke cigarettes, you’re putting yourself at a heightened risk for heart disease. That correlation is well-known and unchallenged today, but that wasn’t always so. It took an ambitious, years-long project, the Framingham Heart Study to uncover the link, and it only happened because of the study’s commitment to comprehensive data collection.

The Framingham study is a near-canonical example of the power of longitudinal studies, those that follow participants for decades, and which ca

Creating a Universe in the Lab? The Idea Is No Joke

Posted: June 19, 2017, 6:15 pm |
Physicists aren’t often reprimanded for using risqué humor in their academic writings, but in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article entitled ‘Hard Art of the Universe Creation’ to the journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that might one day evolve its own stars, planets and intelligent life. Near the end, Linde made a seeming

Ancient DNA Unravels Cat Domestication Like Ball of Yarn

Posted: June 19, 2017, 3:00 pm |
The truth about cats and dogs is this: despite being the two species that humans are most likely to have as pets, Rex and Ruffles had very different paths from the wild to our couches. Analyzing ancient and modern cat DNA, researchers believe they have figured out much of the mystery surrounding cat domestication — and no, it didn’t start in ancient Egypt.

Both the archaeological and paleogenetic record show that dogs are unique in being the only animal domesticated prior to the adv

Meerkats Can Thank Bacteria for Their Signature Butt Scents

Posted: June 19, 2017, 2:30 pm |
When Disney’s animators were creating Timon, the energetic meerkat sidekick in The Lion King, the part where he turns his anal pouch inside-out and marks his territory must have been left on the cutting room floor. Not once does Timon smear scented butt paste on a branch. But real meerkats use their anal scent glands to communicate with each other. And each animal’s distinctive scent seems to come from its personal community of bacteria.

Both male and female meerkats have anal scent gland

Australian Scientists Dredged the Deep Seafloor — Here’s What they Found

Posted: June 16, 2017, 8:11 pm |
In a dark world of crushing pressures and barren landscapes, creatures we’ve never seen before, and, likely, couldn’t even imagine, are swimming.

The ocean’s abyssal zone begins over two miles beneath surface; it’s so deep that light never touches it. What little we know about it comes from sediment dredged up from the seafloor and brief snapshots captured by remotely operated submarines. This makes it a gold mine for marine biologists, for whom each rare glimpse beneath the waves offers

Everything Worth Knowing About … Auroras

Posted: June 12, 2017, 10:00 am |
Colorful shape-shifters of the heavens.

The New Science of Daydreaming

Posted: May 9, 2017, 10:00 am |
Daydreams seem like a waste of time, something to avoid. But they actually can lead to creative ideas.