Doctors have a rosier view of male than of female surgeons

24 Nov 2017, 10:29 am

MARGARET ANN BULKLEY, who became, in 1812, the first woman to receive modern surgical training, achieved that distinction by pretending to be a man. No medical school at the time admitted women. She practised under the name of Dr James Barry and performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections (successful in that both mother and baby survived). Much has changed since then, but female surgeons remain few and far between. That is especially true at the top of the profession. Among surgeons in general, about a fifth are women in America and just over a tenth in Britain. The percentage of women holding professorial chairs in surgery departments is in the single digits.

A working paper by Heather Sarsons of Harvard University suggests that one reason for this may be bias in the way other doctors refer their patients for surgery. Ms Sarsons examined surgical referrals covered by Medicare, America’s public insurance system for the elderly, that took place between 2008 and 2012. She measured how referrals from a given doctor to a...Continue reading

Improving the plants that Africans eat and breeders neglect

23 Nov 2017, 3:52 pm

CASSAVA and sweet potatoes. Lablab beans and water berries. Bitter gourds and sickle sennas. Elephant ears and African locusts. Some will be familiar to readers in rich countries. Others, probably not. Elephant ears, for example, are leafy vegetables. African locusts are tree-borne legumes. All, however, are standard fare in various parts of Africa. What they also have in common is that they are, from the point of view of plant breeders, orphans. They are neglected by breeders because they are not cash crops. Conversely, they are not cash crops because they are neglected by breeders.

That neglect matters. The cereals which dominate human diets—rice, wheat and maize—have had their yields and nutritional values boosted over the years by scientific breeding programmes. In the modern era of genomics, they have had their DNA scrutinised down to the level of individual base pairs, the molecular letters in which genetic information is written. They are as far removed, nutritionally, from...Continue reading

Another example of why replication is important in science

23 Nov 2017, 3:52 pm

The class of ’52

AN ENDLESS stream of new discoveries makes science thrilling. But, as any seasoned researcher knows, such novelties are worthless unless they can be replicated. Often, though, replication does not get done as thoroughly as it should be—or even at all. For, as any seasoned researcher also knows, replication is rarely the stuff careers are built on; studies conducted with that goal may even struggle to get published in peer-reviewed journals.

In this context, a recent attempted replication is important, for it actually was published last week in a journal called Psychological Science. Its author was Michael Dufner of the University of Leipzig, in Germany. In it, he said that he was unable to replicate a fascinating previous finding which had suggested that people who smile more intensely tend to live longer than those who did not.

The original study, published in 2010 by Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger, then...Continue reading

The first known interstellar rock gets a name

23 Nov 2017, 3:52 pm

The International Astronomical Union has spoken. The first body known to have visited Earth’s solar system from interstellar space, which had been given the provisional name 1I/2017 U1, is to be called ’Oumuamua. The object, 180 metres long and 30 metres wide, was discovered on October 19th by Rob Weryk of the University of Hawaii, using Pan-STARRS 1, a telescope in Haleakala, and was announced to the world on October 26th. The picture above shows an artist's impression of what it may look like. Roughly translated from the Hawaiian, the new name means “a messenger from afar arriving first”.

The montage below shows five images of ’Oumuamua, each taken a day apart from Kitt Peak National...Continue reading

Birds with poor digestion are literally off colour

23 Nov 2017, 3:52 pm

Mr and Mrs House-Finch

THE vibrant hues of beautiful plumage are often borrowed. Flamingos, for example, owe their pinkness to chemicals called carotenoids that are made by bacteria known (confusingly) as blue-green algae. The birds, when feeding, both ingest these bacteria directly and consume small crustaceans that themselves subsist on such bacteria. Blue-footed boobies obtain their eponymous colour similarly, via the fish they eat.

Carotenoids, though, are dual-use molecules. Besides being pigments, they also help to stimulate the immune system. If a bird is troubled by parasites or pathogens its immune system will thus use up some of its carotenoid stock defending against these interlopers, and its colour will suffer. If it is parasite-free, by contrast, most of the carotenoids it consumes will be used to create colour. This is a difference that potential mates notice and act on, as dozens of experiments have proved. But a study just published in Continue reading

Smart circuit-breakers for energy-efficient homes

23 Nov 2017, 3:52 pm

Let there be light

IN THE future, homes will use electricity much more sensibly than they do now: turning the lights off automatically when no one is around; adjusting the heating regularly to suit a householder’s daily routine; making sure the electric car is charged up using off-peak rates; even drawing power from the car’s battery in the event of a grid outage. A variety of plug-in devices can already do some of these things. Yet lurking in every home, usually in a dark cupboard or down in the basement, is a humble piece of equipment that, with a bit of tweaking, could replace them all with a single command centre.

The equipment concerned is often referred to as a fuse box, although nowadays it is unlikely to use actual fuses—strands of wire that cut off the current by melting in the event of a power surge. Instead, such boxes contain a panel of electromechanical switches called circuit breakers. Typically, a breaker contains an electromagnet through...Continue reading

Wine-making existed at least 500 years earlier than previously known

16 Nov 2017, 4:10 pm

ACCORDING to the ancient Greeks, wine was first discovered by Dionysus, and proved so popular that he was rewarded with godhood. The ancient Persians credit it to a woman who had been banished from the presence of the legendary King Jamshid. Despondent, she wandered into a warehouse where she found a jar containing the remains of some spoiled grapes. Thinking this was as good a method of suicide as any, she drank the liquid. The effect was not quite what she had expected.

For archaeologists, as opposed to mythmakers, untangling the history of wine is particularly hard, partly because the product is perishable and partly because the technique is simple enough to have been invented independently by early settlers in different parts of the world. It did not help that, until recently, archaeologists would wash any ancient pottery they unearthed in hydrochloric acid to strip off any accumulated gunk, which also removed any organic compounds that might have given a clue about what was once stored in the pots.

Fortunately, bits of wine-stained pottery still turn up. As reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds at two sites have pushed the origins of large-scale winemaking back to 6,000 BC, half a millennium or more before the previous date. A team of researchers led by Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of...Continue reading

New surgical robots are about to enter the operating theatre

16 Nov 2017, 3:58 pm

ROBOTS have been giving surgeons a helping hand for years. In 2016 there were about 4,000 of them scattered around the world’s hospitals, and they took part in 750,000 operations. Most of those procedures were on prostate glands and uteruses. But robots also helped surgeons operate on kidneys, colons, hearts and other organs. Almost all of these machines were, however, the products of a single company. Intuitive Surgical, of Sunnyvale, California, has dominated the surgical-robot market since its device, da Vinci, was cleared for use by the American Food and Drug Administration in 2000.

That, though, is likely to change soon, for two reasons. One is that the continual miniaturisation of electronics means that smarter circuits can be fitted into smaller and more versatile robotic arms than those possessed by Intuitive’s invention. This expands the range of procedures surgical robots can be involved in, and thus the size of the market. The other is that surgical robotics is, as it were,...Continue reading

Growing tiny tumours in the lab could help treat cancer

16 Nov 2017, 3:58 pm

Giving up their secrets

ALMOST half a century after Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, there has been plenty of progress. But there is still no cure. One reason is that “cancer” is an umbrella term that covers many different diseases. Although the fundamental mechanism is always the same—the uncontrolled proliferation of cells—the details vary enormously. Leukaemia is not the same as colon cancer. Even within a particular type of cancer, one patient’s disease will differ from another’s. Different mutations, for instance, will affect different genes within a tumour. The result is that cancer can be frustratingly difficult to treat.

Medicine, though, is getting better at accounting for these differences. In a paper just published in Nature Medicine, a team led by Meritxell Huch, a biologist at the Gurdon Institute, a cancer-research centre at the University of Cambridge, describes a technique that could, one day, help doctors design bespoke treatments for their patients,...Continue reading

How to send a message to another planet

15 Nov 2017, 8:33 pm


IN 2029 the inhabitants, if any, of the planet GJ 273b will receive a message that will change their lives forever. Encoded in radio signals emanating from an innocuous-looking blue-green planet 12.4 light-years away, will be tutorials in mathematics and physics, followed by a burst of music. The import of the message, however, will be clear: “Let’s talk.”

Or so Douglas Vakoch hopes. For on November 16th Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), the group that he heads, and the organisers of Sónar, a music festival in Barcelona, announced they had sent a series of missives towards Luyten’s star, the red dwarf around which GJ 273b orbits.

“Sónar Calling GJ 273b”, as the initiative is called, sent its message in mid-October from a radar antenna at Ramfjordmoen, in Norway. The antenna, run by EISCAT, a scientific organisation based at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, is usually used to study Earth’s...Continue reading

A bird’s alarm calls do not always come out of its beak

8 Nov 2017, 9:48 pm

Nice primaries, dahling

CHARLES DARWIN was fascinated by bird communication. In “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” he devoted equal space to both the sorts of sounds that emerge from birds’ beaks and the more percussive noises that they make with other parts of their bodies, such as their feet and feathers. He speculated that both types of sounds were important for sending signals to others, but was unsure if this was true. In the years that have passed since his death, ornithologists have proved time and again that birds’ songs, squawks and shrieks are used for sending signals to their kin, their rivals and sometimes even their predators. In contrast, their more percussive sounds have received almost no attention at all. A study published in Current Biology by Trevor Murray at the Australian National University, in Canberra, however, suggests that is a mistake. At least one bird creates a specific, audible warning...Continue reading

A randomised trial shows that the power of the press is real

8 Nov 2017, 9:48 pm

MALCOLM X, an American political activist, described the media as the most powerful entity on Earth, “because they control the minds of the masses”. Some journalists may find this proposition flattering, but though those who study such things agree newspapers exert some influence over their readers, the effect has proved devilishly difficult to quantify. Now, Gary King of Harvard University and his colleagues have measured the impact of stories from almost three dozen different news sources on the American public, as judged by the content of posts on Twitter, a microblogging service. Their study, published this week in Science, found that even stories from the news sites that formed part of the study, which were small compared with, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post, increased Twitter discussion of the issues in those stories by about 60%. They also shifted the nature of the views expressed in those tweets towards those of the published...Continue reading