Gaia 2016

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2016


Female scientists might co-opt male co-authors to get science research papers published!!!!  When scientists start using irrelevant criteria in peer review you can bet your bottom groat that their science veers towards fiction.  Evolutionary geneticist Fiona Ingleby was understandably shocked when she read the review of her proposed paper that investigated gender differences in the PhD-to-postdoc transition. It included a suggestion that two female researchers find “one or two male biologists” to co-author and help them strengthen their paper! “Perhaps it is not so surprising that on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students,” added the reviewer. The reviewer's other comments were also vague with no clear recommendations as to how the paper might be improved. The journal to which the paper had been submitted was part of the PLoS group. Three weeks previously the authors appealed the rejection, but the only communication they had received from the journal was an e-mail apologising for the delay. So Ingleby posted the excerpts on Twitter because “we felt that the journal should have taken the appeal a bit more seriously - the review is so obviously inappropriate that we couldn’t understand why it was taking so long, when we just wanted them to send it back out for a fair review.” A Twitter outroar understandably ensued. Only then did PLoS belatedly apologise.

Angry artificial intelligence created and named after Asimov creation. This might not seem a wise thing to do. The last thing anyone wants in an angry artificial intelligence (A.I.) to go rogue in a fit of rage: imagine Skynet but with a real bad attitude. But the new A.I. will be used to train staff as to how to deal with angry customers. The New Zealand-based technology firm Touchpoint Group has created it to simulate hundreds of millions of angry customer interactions that will help companies better understand the behaviours and processes that trigger customer outbursts. Touchpoint hopes that it will one day help big banks, telcos and insurance companies defuse explosive episodes in customer service. The A.I. is called Radiant, after the Isaac Asimov’s seminal 'Foundation' novels that could predict the future behaviour and development of humanity through a mathematical analysis of history and sociology.

The mystery of the unusual radio telescope signals has been solved.... For over four years, astronomers at the Parkes telescope in New South Wales, Australia, have been plagued by a mystery signal... And, following a call for help by the astronomers, this led to some speculation on the internet including some wild notions. However the truth, it has now transpired, is laughably mundane. The transient signal's source was the microwave in the facilities canteen!

What is the collective term for a group of 'scientists'?  So mused cancer researcher Ritankar Majumdar on his blog This spawned a twitter storm of suggestions that included: 'a selection of evolutionary biologists', 'a table of chemists', 'a niche of ecologists', 'a network of neuroscientists', 'a culture of microbiologists', 'a stream of urologists', 'a joint of orthopedicians', 'a cloud of data scientists' and 'a nucleus of physicists' not to mention the oxymoronic collective term 'a distribution of statisticians'.  All of which begs the question as to what is the collective term for a group of SF writers, or even SF fans? A quick online search soon uncovered: 'a clank of cybermen', 'a shortage of dwarves', 'a stench of zombies' and 'carpet of wookies'. One of Gaia's favourites was made by Steve Cooper, 'a massacre of red shirts '. Though Rob Hickling's 'a pepper of daleks' comes close.

Regular sex makes couples happier. But more than once a week confers no added value.  "Although previous studies have shown that more frequent sex is associated with greater happiness, this link was no longer significant at a frequency of more than once a week," said lead researcher Amy Muise. This study, based on surveys of more than 30,000 Americans collected over four decades, is the first to find that association is not there after couples report having sex more than once a week on average. And there is a caveat: these findings were specific to people in romantic relationships and in fact, there was no association between sexual frequency and wellbeing for single people. Also despite common stereotypes that men want more sex and older people have less sex, there was no difference in the findings based on gender, age or length of relationship. The other thing to note is that this research still does not disentangle whether sex makes couples happy or happy couples have more sex. So some mystery still remains. (Source: Muise, A., et al (2015). Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better. Social Psychological and Personality Science, DOI: 10.1177/1948550615616462.)

Arguably one of the most tragic and unfunny science mistake of the past year revolved around mistaken species' identity.  True taxonomic identification expertise is the preserve of a small group of specialist biologists and an equally tiny band of amateur natural history enthusiasts, but most certainly not necessarily the hired help.  Nonetheless, last August (2015) members of New Zealand's Deerstalkers' Association assisted in the cull of the common pükeko (Porphyrio porphyrio) on Motutapu Island that were threatening 21 highly endangered takahë (Porphyrio hochstetteri) but in the process killed four of the threatened takahë.  The total New Zealand population on takahë mubers just 300.  The president of the New Zealand Deerstalkers' Association apologised ahead of an enquiry into the incident.  Furthermore, this problem of mistaking species is more general as is revealed by the next item.

Research on biological collections has shown that while the world’s biological collections have more than doubled since 1970, on average more than 50% of tropical specimens are likely to be incorrectly named. Specimens of plants and animals preserved in museums are the primary source of verifiable data on the geographical and temporal distribution of organisms and so important for things such as developing biodiversity conservation programmes. Now a research team, led by Zoe Goodwin and David Harris, has looked at 4,500 specimens of African gingers from 40 herbaria in 21 countries. Among a number of results, they found that that at least 58% of the specimens had the wrong name A similar pattern of wrongly named specimens is also shown for Dipterocarps and Ipomoea (morning glory). Specimen data have huge potential to address global environmental problems but, they conclude, the rate of increase in natural history collections across the world has greatly outpaced the ability to process, evaluate and name them correctly. Biologists face a huge disinformation problem. (See Goodwin, Harris & Filer et al. (2015) Widespread mistaken identity in tropical plant collections. Current Biology vol.25, pp R1066-7.)

Ghost Fishing... Ghost story involving mass death told by leading science journal for Halloween. This 2015 Halloween story was told in a Nature editorial (vol. 526, p. 610). Right now, in the unlit waters across the world, fish, crabs and other marine life are being drawn into lost and discarded nets and traps by the dead and decomposing bodies of their comrades. They in turn will die and so attract more... This is called 'ghost fishing'. Some states do make an effort to curb ghost fishing. Louisiana sees its 1,800 professional crab fishers each lose around 250 traps each year. Each trap catches a blue crab every two weeks and so nearly 12 million crabs (worth US$4 million) are ghost killed along the Louisiana stretch of coast. But Louisiana has a ten-day period each year when it is legal to drag and remove lost and discarded fish traps, nets, lines etc.  Eric Gilman, a marine biologist at the Hawaii Pacific Coast University, looked at how many of the 19 global and regional fishing bodies managing fishing internationally, have any policy on ghost fishing. Just 4 had an explicit mandate to control ghost fishing, while half did not even begin to gather ghost fishing data (Marine Policy vol. 60, p. 225-239.). We need to exorcise ghost fishing as, unlike other ghost stories told last Halloween, this one is true.

James Bond's Spectre  gets the science both right and wrong. With science's undeniably marked and overly beneficial impact on human well-being it is good to see it being taken more and more seriously in films and on TV.  Which is why Gaia was a little disheartened to read a letter from research clinician Michael Cusimano in Nature (vol. 528, p479) whose own enjoyment of Spectre was marred by a fundamental neuroanatomical blunder.  Bond is about to get his ability to identify people's faces removed by a drill entering his brain's lateral fusiform gyrus as Bond himself is informed when strapped down by his cat-stroking nemesis.  Now, this really is the correct area of the brain used for facial recognition (Parvizi et al, 2012, Journal of Neuroscience vol. 32, p14915-20). However we see the drill under and behind the ear (heading for the mastoid process) where it might have hit the ipsilateral vertebral artery.  The drill should have been just in front of 007's ear.  True, where it was targeted might have blanked Bond's memory of faces, but only because severing the artery might have resulted in death.  For all their grandiose pomp and swagger these Bond villains have no science finesse... A thought Gaia freely gives you for the time, should it ever come, when you find yourself at the mercy of some global megalomaniac.

Ice taken from the Alps to Antarctica in the face of climate change... was, on an initial look, one of the odder stories in the past year's science press that tickled Gaia. Actually, look deeper and the reality is not that daft. Scientists are shipping ice to the Antarctic as they are worried that as glaciers around the world that melting as a result of climate change, we will lose a record of past environmental conditions. So they want to store samples of ice in a new vault in the coldest place on Earth. If you work on corals, on marine sediments, on tree rings, the raw material is still here and will be for many centuries. Yet only a small amount of mountain glacial ice has ever been collected and studied. Those examining such glacial ice cores are probably the only scientific community whose archive is in danger of disappearing from the face of the planet! The first ice being transported is from the Col du Dome that sits just below the summit of Mont Blanc. France's National Centre for Scientific Research is leading on this initiative.

Dog called Trigger shoots owner in foot. This headline tickled Gaia's whimsy bone. Allie Carter, 25, of Indiana in the USA, was hunting waterfowl in October (2015) when she put down her 12-gauge shotgun. But her chocolate Labrador stepped on it, shooting her in the foot. To literally add insult to injury, the dog's called 'Trigger'. Had to be really.

Betamax finally, finally... dies.  And you probably thought that Betamax died over a decade ago. Indeed, some of you probably do not even know what Betamax is/was.  'Betamax' was a chunky, but good quality, video cassette format developed by Sony in 1975.  In the latter half of the 1970s there was a commercial battle between Betamax and two Phillips video formats.  Betamax lost out to one of the Phillips formats and then it in turn, very quickly, lost out to the then new compact video cassette format VHS (and then VHS lost out to DVDs early in the 2000s) in the video format wars).  Betamax video recorders and players ceased production in 2002.  All of which brings us back to today and our look back at the past year which saw Sony produce its last Betamax cassette in March (2016).  So farewell Betamax.  We briefly loved your quality (but never your size).

A Microsoft artificial intelligence (AI) became Ηïtler-loving and in¢ëst-encouraging that so alarmed Microsoft that they had to take it down!  Microsoft decided that what Twitter really needed was a friendly AI chat robot.  And so they created an AI to speak 'like a teen girl' and marketed her as 'Tay' the 'AI with zero chill'.  All well and good, but the thing about artificial intelligence is that it learns from information sources with which it interfaces, namely, in this case, Twitter users. And so before long -- just one day in fact -- Tay was asking her followers to 'f***' her.  She also came up with outrageous phrases such as: 'Bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have got now. donald trump is the only hope we've got'.  Remember, it is not just the language but that it appears to be coming from a teen girl avatar.  So after just a day Microsoft took Tay offline. But presumably Tay will be back (AIs are usually back, aren't they Arnold?).  Meanwhile, all this talk of seχuality and Hitler...
brings us neatly on to our never-changing end-of-Gaia column regular… And finally…

The 2016 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year. Remember, these are genuine titles of books published last year! This year the short-list included:-
          Reading the Liver: Papyrological Texts on Ancient Greek Extispicy by William Furley and Victor Gysembergh (this is, in case you wondered an academic study on sacrificial sheep)
          Too Naked for the Nazis by Alan Stafford (a biography of a musical hall troupe)
          Paper Folding with Children by Alice Hornecke and translated by Anna Cardwell (bet that creased them up)
          Transvestite Vampire Biker Nuns from Outer Space: A Consideration of Cult Film by Mark Kirwan-Hayhoe
          Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton
          Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Herwig (photographs of bus stops and not an account of a bus stopping...)
          Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus by Jonathan Allan
          And the winner is Too Naked for the Nazis by Alan Stafford with 24.8% of the public vote. Coming a very close second was Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus by Jonathan Allan with 24.3%. of the vote. This was the closest vote since the awards turned to the public voting on the shortlist in 2000 and, indeed, during the final days the first and second place titles swapped a number of times.
          There is no prize for the winner, but the nominator of the winning title does get a passable bottle of claret. As the person nominating the winner was the author of the winning title himself, Alan Stafford gets the claret.  Meanwhile, apparently the author of the running-up title, Jonathan Allan, is currently writing his next book: Uncut: The Foreskin Archive.
          The Diagram prize was originally conceived in 1978 by Trevor Bounford, co-founder with Bruce Robertson of publishing solutions firm The Diagram Group, as a way of avoiding boredom at the annual Frankfurt Book Fayre. It has been administered every year (except 1987 and 1991 due to a paucity of odd titles) by the Bookseller and Horace Bent, that magazine's diarist.
          ++++   Previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2017 with more frivolity.

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