Tails gave early land animals a leg up

From Cosmos Magazine, July 8, 2016. (Image: Klaus Stiefel via Flickr)

The muscular tails that propelled prehistoric fish through water may have been essential for their move onto land, a study in Science reports.

The transition from life in Earth’s watery depths to life on land occurred roughly 385–360 million years ago. All modern four-limbed land animals – “tetrapods” including mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians – can trace their lineage back to pioneering land dwellers from this time.

But how aquatic animals moved about on land has been a matter of speculation. Until now, palaeontologists have largely relied on fossils and track marks to make their predictions. Read more…

Game Changer for Cancer

From Cosmos Magazine, June 13, 2016. (Image: Melanoma by Martin Trotter via Flickr)

RON WALKER has never been one to shy from a challenge. But at 72, the former lord mayor of Melbourne was thrown a curveball. A pea-sized lump on his forehead turned out to be a melanoma.

Once removed, and with the lymph nodes showing all clear, his surgeon was optimistic. Within a year tumours blossomed in his lungs, bones and brain. Walker was given a few months to live. In a last-ditch attempt, he travelled to Los Angeles to enrol in a trial of a new drug, Keytruda. Every three weeks, Walker watched drug-laced fluid drain from the drip into his arm. After just four treatments, his tumours began shrinking. A year and a half later, his cancer was nowhere to be seen. Similar stories of survival against the odds are found across the globe, given prominence by celebrity recipients such as former US President Jimmy Carter, who used the drug to great effect in his fight against melanoma.

Keytruda and similar drugs are heralded as game-changers in the cancer community.

Read more…

Have we got sepsis wrong?

(Photo by Bastian via Flickr)

When Paul Manley awoke in the hospital, he had one clear conviction running through his groggy mind. “I thought, ‘this is what death feels like, I’m going to die’,” he says. The 62-year-old retired Air Force Colonel had been in a coma for eight days, not because he had been in a car accident, nor because he’d had a stroke or heart attack. What had landed him in the intensive care unit was sepsis, a complication of infection that is still not fully understood.

Infections are a mundane part of life, and in most cases, our body’s immune system shakes them off with little effort. But for more than three quarters of a million people in the US each year – and many millions globally – infections turn into life-threatening sepsis. One in ten people admitted to intensive care units in the US have sepsis, and startlingly, it is the culprit in up to half of all hospital deaths. Continue reading “Have we got sepsis wrong?”

Jawbone and teeth reveal hobbit’s 700,000-year-old ancestors

From Cosmos Magazine, June 9, 2016. (Photo by Kinez Riza)

A jawbone and six teeth push back the origins of the “hobbit” – a tiny species of early human – by more than half a million years.

Two studies, published in Nature, detail the remarkable find.

They suggest that the hobbit’s ancestors were already dwarfed and living on the Indonesian island of Flores 700,000 years ago. Read more…

Where did we come from? A primer on early human evolution

From Cosmos Magazine, June 9, 2016. Homo floresiensis photo by Karen Neoh via Flickr

The story of human origins is a messy one. Each bone fragment that’s unearthed or ancient genome that’s decoded adds a new piece to the puzzle – and it doesn’t necessarily make the picture any clearer.

“Human evolution is not a line of cartoons from a bent-over chimpanzee to a modern human,” says Fred Spoor, a palaeoanthropologist from University College, London. “It’s a complex business.”

While Spoor and his colleagues revel in the increasingly bushy family tree that is emerging, the rest of us can be left up the proverbial tree.

So, here’s what we do – and don’t – know about where we came from. Read more…

Is this tiny Australian bird an ecosystem engineer?

(Forty-spotted Pardalote photo by Francesco Veronesi via Flickr)

The Forty-spotted Pardalote is tiny – the endangered songbird measures just a palm’s width from head to tail. Yet its daily activities could be having a big impact in the Manna gum canopies where they forage, a recent study suggests.

Manna gums (Eucalyptus viminalis), along with a limited number of other species, secrete sap that crystallises into a fluffy white substance called manna. The sugary floss is a staple for canopy-dwellers – from birds like the Pardalote, to sugar gliders, possums and ants.

Now, research by Samuel Case and Amanda Edworthy at the Australian National University, suggests that the Pardalotes might not be simply collecting the manna they find, but actively ‘mining’ it from the trees. Previously, manna production was thought to be due to damage inflicted by insects. Continue reading “Is this tiny Australian bird an ecosystem engineer?”

Book Review: The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

confidence-gameIn 2008, my then husband and I went to New York for a holiday. On our second day there, we were conned. It was a simple ruse: a guy came up to us on the street, offering to sell us a copy of The Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people around the world to give them a leg up. I was familiar with The Big Issue – I’d bought it on many occasions from the colourful local vendors in Melbourne. Why not support those facing similar struggles in New York, the city that we were now – albeit briefly – calling home? We parted with our money easily, buoyed by the warm fuzzy of altruism. The problem, we soon realised, was that I wasn’t holding a copy of The Big Issue in my hands, but rather a copy of The Onion, a satirical newspaper that you could pick up for free at any number of venues around the city. We’d been had, and all we could do was laugh.

We’ve all come across confidence artists, whether we recognise them as such at the time, come to realise only after the fact, or remain blissfully ignorant of the nefarious nature of the encounter. In ‘The Confidence Game’, Maria Konnikova unmasks the art of the con in all its guises, from the Three-card Monte, to high-stakes art fraud and manipulating cults.

Buying a free newspaper – a satirical one, no less – is laughable. But at the other end of the spectrum lies devastation – personal, professional and financial. Konnikova deftly dissects the anatomy of confidence tricks, from the mild to the utterly calamitous. As varied as cons are, what brings them together is the psychology of why they work – why there really is one sucker born every minute, as the saying goes. The intriguing psychology behind each component of the con – the put-up, the play, the rope, to name a few – is uncovered through deep research and remarkable true stories.

The most unnerving revelation in Konnikova’s book is that there is a sucker in all of us. It is our own lapses in rationality and hardwired predilection to believe a good story that makes us putty in the hands of an expert grifter. Konnikova unmasks the techniques of the con, but likewise unmasks the charlatan within each of us – the element that is eager to play along and ignore the better judgement we would employ if it were someone else being conned.

In revealing how easily we can be swayed by the ‘too good to be true’ story, Konnikova doesn’t just tell us how to avoid being conned. She illuminates the irrationality that bleeds into every aspect of our lives, from how we invest in the stock market, to how we rationalise staying in a bad relationship after its use-by date.

The true crime stories in ‘The Confidence Game’ are unlike other true crime stories. There’s no blood and guts and gore; the victims live to tell the tale. But they are no less harrowing. Konnikova’s unrelenting message that this could indeed happen to you – and that you more than likely believe exactly the opposite – runs across every page. It’s a fascinating read, but also endlessly unsettling.

This review originally appeared on the blog Science Book a Day. If you’re in need of a good reading list, check it out!