Science Caturday: All Dried Out


California has been experiencing drought conditions for over a year, and now geological monitoring stations  show that the drying ground is actually rising up. According to this article by Sarah Zielinski in Smithsonian Magazine, “Measurements of these subtle movements, made using GPS instruments, suggest that the western United States is missing some 62 trillion gallons of water, enough to cover the entire region six inches deep.” Alarming news for farmers and thirsty kitties alike.


5 Very Good Questions

Nature has published a comment by William P. Hanage suggesting ways to inoculate oneself against the hype associated with the burgeoning field of microbiome studies. As Bethany Brookshire (aka, SciCurious) notes, these questions should be applied to any and all research, not just the microbiome.

1. Can experiments distinguish differences that matter?
2. Does the study show causation or just correlation?
3. What is the mechanism?
4. How much do experiments reflect reality?
5. Could anything else explain the results?
-paraphrased from William P. Hanage in Nature

Mythology is Gross

Genealogy of the Olympians in Greek Mythology (Wikipedia)

Genealogy of the Olympians in Greek Mythology (Wikipedia)

The authors of this encyclopedia do a good job of illustrating that myths have many variant versions.

Samuel Arbesman has a fun, if creepy, post over at Wired on calculating how inbred the Greek gods were. Previously, here at The Finch & Pea, we’ve taken on the inevitable inbreeding that must have occurred in Adam and Eve’s family, which provides some additional explanation of what exactly geneticists mean by “inbreeding coefficient” and what the consequences of inbreeding can be.

I’ve thought about taking on the genetics of the Greek gods before on these grounds, but have always gotten overly hung up on the many variants of the origin stories that often exist for each god. For the gods’ sake, Aphrodite has an origin story that has her arising as a female clone from Uranus’ castrated testicles (most likely due to the SRY gene never being expressed during development).

Getting grumpy about PMS paper

On 11 August 2014, Michael R. Gillings published a paper in Evolutionary Applications entitled “Were there evolutionary advantages to premenstrual syndrome?” There is a strain of thinking that is common in the general public, but is also frequently found among academic researchers that I call adaptionism. This line of thinking assumes that, if a biological phenomenon exists, it must be there as the result of natural selection – i.e., be adaptive. This makes things like PMS seem like a great, evolutionary mystery to be “solved”.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. -from the abstract, Matthew R. Gillings (DOI: 10.1111/eva.12190)

I could spend pages on the problems with this approach to such a question. Fortunately for you and I, Kathryn Clancy, who is far more knowledgable on the relevant evolutionary anthropology than you and I, gutted this paper for The Daily Beast earlier this week:

…the fact that PMS is heritable and variable tells us nothing about whether women with PMS have more children than those who don’t, and this is the true test for adaptation. This crucial point—the third and most crucial condition for natural selection—is absent from the paper.
-Kathryn Clancy



Doing the things that a particle can…

Particle Clicker is a simple and addictive click-based game developed by undergrads at CERN Webfest. You are cast as the head of a particle accelerator lab striving to make breakthroughs in physics, without all the grant writing and begging governments for money.

Screenshot 2014-08-15 21.01.52

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing – I particularly enjoyed the smashed particle paths when you click on the detector, it is full of information about the physics phenomena you are investigating and humor about the research process.

In its current iteration, the gameplay can get repetitive, but it is well worth at least one play through, if only to read all the information boxes. Also, once you have accumulated enough competent staff, you can simply sit back and let the data accumulate while you enjoy the easy life of a high-profile PI1.

1. According to reports, this is only an easy life by the standards of graduate students and post-docs with no hopes of advancement on their traditional career path.

SOURCE: Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing.