Since plants generally can’t move around, they have to rely on other strategies to cope with animals eager to turn them into a meal. Chemical weapons are a significant part of plants’ defensive arsenal. For example, thousands of plant species produce precursors of the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide; when an animal eats the plant, the precursors get converted into cyanide, which kills the offending animal. Continue reading
I have mixed feelings about We Are Our Brains. The author, Dick Swaab, is a professor of neurobiology at Amsterdam University with decades of research experience and many awards to his name, so the book is full of fascinating and intriguing information. Unfortunately, I felt like the delivery was somewhat lacking, leaving me with more questions and wanting more information. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but I feel like the book could have done a much better job of handling some of the inevitable questions and challenges it raises — it could benefit from engaging in dialogue with the reader rather than simply making assertions. Continue reading
This is a story about a gene which makes nursing mice produce more nutritious milk while also making their offspring less demanding. The gene serves to balance nutrient supply and demand between the mother and pup. If the gene is knocked out, the mother’s milk is less rich, but the pups are more demanding, evening out the impact. Things only go wrong when there’s a mismatch. If pups with a defective copy of the gene feed from a normal mother, their increased demand makes them grow larger than normal. Conversely, pups with a good copy end up smaller if they feed from a mother lacking a working copy, since her milk is less nutritious. Continue reading
My latest story on Beacon is about how cats and other animals manage to always land on their feet. It turns out to be a pretty impressive maneuver, and geckos have evolved and entirely different trick to accomplish the same thing:
There’s no need to go far afield to find wonders of the natural world; sometimes it just takes a shift of perspective to notice how they abound in our homes and neighborhoods. Cats, for example, are exquisite animals, with an uncanny ability to take a fall harmlessly by righting themselves in midair. Several years ago, my cat slipped off a sixth-storey ledge, falling something like 20 meters onto hard concrete. She was limping for a few weeks, but her knee healed and there’s no sign of the injury left. How cats manage such a feat is a question which has occupied scientists for over a century; it’s been the subject of in-depth studies in physics, physiology, and even robotics. While some of the details are still unclear, the essential picture is that cats (almost) always land on their feet thanks to an impressive spine-flexing twist maneuver which turns them upright in midair.
One of the striking things about the genetic code is the remarkable way it twists back on itself, combining redundancy and utility in a simple, elegant language. Many of us are introduced to the basic concept in school, but that introduction often leaves out the wrinkles — some of them newly discovered — which give the system its resilience and precision. Despite their complexity, most of these tricks are pretty easy to explain with linguistic analogies, which is precisely what I’m going to try in this post. Continue reading
Every day around 30,000 aircraft take to Europe’s skies. Choreographing this airborne dance is daunting. At the moment, it’s orchestrated by the disparate air traffic management systems of each European country, with control handed over at border crossings. The aeronautics research team at the University of Malta is part of an ambitious EU project to change that by establishing a single European sky, enabling EU air traffic controllers to manage increasing amounts of traffic with greater safety, lower costs, and a reduced environmental impact.
One of the things I love about writing is the way it feels like an endless journey of discovery, constantly offering opportunities to learn about new subjects (and to revisit familiar ones from a different angle). I recently wrote an article for the University of Malta’s Think Magazine about their aeronautics team’s research; I’d never given much thought to air traffic management before, and I really enjoyed learning a bit about the field. It turns out to be a pretty active area of research, full of challenging problems, interesting solutions, and important practical considerations. I really enjoyed writing the article, and it’s available for free on Think‘s website in case you want to learn more about the choreography of the skies.
(Image courtesy FlightRadar24.com. If you’ve got a few minutes to spare, go play with it — it’s fun to see the patterns in planes’ routes!)