How Sahara Desert helps the Amazon Rainforest stay green [Video]

English: Sahara desert from space. Русский: Пу...
English: Sahara desert from space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Sahara Desert is known for its dry and arid regions and the sand dunes that can rise up to almost 600 feet! While this largest hot desert (yes, we have cold deserts too... guess where) can easily be made out from satellites in space, there is more that the satellites have been able to visualise than the dryness of the land.

Watch this short video from NASA below and know how the dryness of Sahara actually helps the Amazon Rainforest stay green.


7.5 million wasps under one roof ? [Video]

Wasp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Can you imagine what it would be to see seven and half million wasps under one roof? Don't worry they are not alive and are well segregated taxonomically. Well, this is what you can expect when you are visiting the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

In its recently released episode of Shelf Life, something that we have sharing at Coffee Table Science, since the day it began, the AMNH takes us to its collection of 7.5 million wasps that is still being catalogued, even though it was donated to the museum in the late 1950's. Why, because cataloging takes a lot of time and 7.5 million is a massive number.

Interestingly, the entire collection was donated by Alfred Kinsey's wife, the same Alfred Kinsey who is known for his revelations of human sexuality. If you would like read more about it, here is our post about How Sexology became a Science.

For now, let's get back to the 7.5 million wasps in this Shelf Life Episode.

This 56 year old woman is happy about having a brain stroke [Video]

Jill Bolte Taylor Brain stroke
Jill Bolte Taylor
Image credit:

Every four minutes a person dies in the United States of a stroke! Much like a heart attack, a stroke can happen at any time and to any body, irrespective of their age, sex or standard of living. Strokes occur when blood supply to the brain is affected. This might be due to a a block in the blood vessel or rupturing of the blood vessel, both of which, deprive the brain cells of essential nutrients and more importantly oxygen, and they die. When brain cells die, they take away with them some unique ability they were conferring before the event of the stroke. So, after a stroke, some people lose their control over some muscles, some may forget names, some lose their identity, while most become partially paralyzed. Any which way, stroke is a debilitating condition and usually worsens the quality of life of the person affected and no one can be happy about it. 

Except, Jill Bolte Taylor! A neuroanatomist by profession, Dr. Taylor was studying the brain at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, when at the peak professional age of 37, she suffered a brain stroke! While others would be distraught after going through such a condition, Dr. Taylor, instead, fought through the horror of the stroke and recovered completely in 8 long years. During this period, Dr. Taylor also learnt fascinating things about the brain (some of which she was trained to learn but had not consciously experienced) and how we call function. 

Here is an emotional talk Dr. Jill Taylor gave at TED in 2008. 

If you would like to know more about Dr. Taylor's story, you can purchase her book, My Stroke of Insight on Amazon.

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Conducting Science, the HBO way!

Mad Scientist
Hollywood's image of a scientist
Image credit: 

If you were an alien species who had recently come across human existence on planet Earth and only had Hollywood movies as your source to all information, your impression of science would be something like this. 

Scientific endeavours on planet Earth are pursued by solitarily working, half- crazy scientist, who is either chasing the elixir of life, finding the secret chemistry behind making gold or probably bringing back to life, his dead relative with the help of electricity alone.  

If you leave out the repeated stories of Hollywood, the remaining half about scientists still holds true. To the public eye, scientists, even in most prestigious universities are looked upon as half-crazy individuals, but it is the solitary working of scientists that is quite worrisome. 

From the days of Anton van Leuwenhoek to Marie Curie and Watson and Crick, scientists have worked either individually or in extremely small groups of one and two.  Even today, although a scientist might have a big research team, there is an individual who heads it and the others are, to use the industry term, extra pair of hands. The Principal Investigator usually has line of thought that he/she pursues in a particular field of research and follows it for an extended period of time. The proving or disproving of his hypotheses takes him either further into the topic or probably away from the topic but either ways, the process of proving accepting or rejecting a hypothesis is at least asummer project long or in some cases a 5 year PhD long. It might be useful to consider here that unlike Leuwenhoek or the Curie’s who just had to motivate themselves to work, a modern day Principal Investigator is responsible to rally his troops every day which can include snooty post docs, dejected Ph.D candidates, and the know-it-all Master’s students, while also fighting tooth and nail with the University to release that extra bit of funding to accommodate a much needed equipment. The bottom line remains that irrespective of the size of his group, the PI is a solitary scientist driven by his passion for the subject. 

Life of a Principal Investigator
Life of a Principal Investigator
Image credit: 

Fortunately, it does not have to be this way.  Instead of working solitarily on individual projects, scientists could work together as a part of a larger team working towards a similar goal. Much like a Hollywood movie where a special team of elite scientists are brought together under one roof to solve one problem.  So, if we are talking about fighting bone disorders, a multi-disciplinary team of scientists could be assembled who would all look into different aspects of bone disorders, all under one roof. They could have their individual teams working at different locations around the globe, but such a system would encourage quicker sharing of findings among peers, rather than go through the painfully long process of publication. (Click here to read Jasonya's how long is long post about publications) This is not to say that research findings should not be published, but findings shared through common meetings would help other researchers to adapt quickly to new findings and change course where required to avoid pilferage of research time, effort and money. 

One can quickly dismiss such a proposition stating that it would never work. It is hard to believe that a bunch of scientists can come together, leaving aside their differences, their backgrounds, their style of working and work towards a common goal. When put together, the result of their work would probably appear quite indiscernible. But did you know that a team like this does exist. It is probably working even right now, as you read this article. It consists of 18 heads of laboratories that have each been given a lead to follow. Their labs are located in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, Iceland to name a few countries and work under the guidance of these lab heads. There are also some specialized labs whose function is to assist these labs wherever required, whether it be raising new infrastructure, supplying existing inventory or procuring new products for them. Different labs take different periods of time to complete their assigned projects , while some even go a step further and share multiple personnel that move across labs from time to time. A central lab then collects all the data from all the labs, puts it in perspective and publishes it on a yearly basis. You might find it hard to believe but people have absolutely loved the result of their work and look forward to it every year. 

Does not sound like a science project. Well, it is not.  The central lab is actually the production house HBO and what we have being talking about is its currently popular show The Game of Thrones.  The 18 heads of labs are actually the 18 directors who come from diverse backgrounds and different working styles. They all have a storyline to follow but work in different shooting locations in the world.  The specialized labs are their costume and armoury departments that coordinate with all the labs and supply them, irrespective of the shooting locations. And if you think that the costume making is an easy task, then you must know that the Margaery Tyrell dress for her wedding with the much loathed Joffery Baratheon required more than 200 man hours of work to make. Creating a knockout gene definitely takes lesser.  

Finally, the work of all the teams is put together by the production house and published as a season of 10 hours every year.  What HBO has managed to do for five years in a row now might look like a logistical nightmare to many but actually is interdisciplinary coordination at its best. As mentioned before, the end result of their work is being appreciated by one and all and there exists a similar set up even in the scientific community that whose work is being appreciated world over. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, is a single location laboratory for scientists from all over the world and consists of thousands of scientists using single experiments to capture various aspects of the data.  New findings that have emerged from this setup have improved our understanding of particle physics and more is expected out of it in the years to come. For those, who were probably skeptical that the HBO analogy would not work in the scientific community, the setup at CERN is a definitive encouragement to this concept. 

Such a setup becomes increasingly relevant for developing economies of Asia who need not develop laboratory infrastructure individually within their geographical boundaries. Instead, money, effort and resources saved by not replicating institutional infrastructure could be pooled into these regional institutes that will cater to the entire Asian region.  Thanks to modern computing devices and apps, communication between teams can be quick and even instantaneous, where necessary.  Lab notebooks can be shared on the cloud where each technician could update his/her results in real time and for all to review. The peer review at this stage of work will also help in correction of study or experiment design early on and also help avoid falsification of data and the shameful retractions of papers that have occurred in the past. Information repositories could be set up for sharing information between these institutions and their digital libraries of universities and teaching hospitals could be merged which will benefit thousands of students studying in these institutions. Over a period of time, certain institutes will develop areas of strength such as cloning, culturing, computational biology, clinical research etc. which can then be utilized to streamline science projects and avoid the duplication of work. Such a setup would have probably allowed researchers Michael Springer (Harvard University ) and Hana El-Samad (University of California, San Francisco,) to work on different aspects on the Galactose uptakes and not end up publishing similar results in the same journal on the same day. 

For long, the Asian scientific community has been following the Western model for conducting its research and has become a follower. With the economy, demographics and the correct mindset in favour, Asian countries must use this opportunity to lead the way and set up a Asian Union of Science whereas ideas, funding and scientists can move freely without any geographical boundaries, thus, benefitting one and all. Such a setup will also help in researching traditional medicine practices which are losing their significance in this modern way of life.

The above post was my submission for the inaugural Asian Scientist Writing Prize, whose winners were announced this week. A Big Congratulations to the winners and also the Asian Scientists Magazine for conducting the competition. As you may gathered by now, my entry did not win anything, but I thought I should share it with everybody.  

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What Did Evolution Get Wrong [Video]

About 6 days and 90 years ago, the Criminal Court of Tennessee sentenced a high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes, guilty of teaching human evolution in school. The Scopes Trial or the Scopes Monkey Trial, as it is famously known, was a big event for its time and set the tone for debate whether evolution should or should be taught in schools. While the debate continues even today and people continue to argue over the merits and demerits of the evolution theory, we came across this short video from BBC Earth Unplugged that actually questions the theory of evolution, in a fun way.

Disclaimer: Neither the BBC Earth Unplugged nor Coffee Table Science are attempting to question the theory of evolution, it's just that these are interesting questions that need to be asked so enjoy the video.

If you have liked video, do let us know your thoughts on it below. There are some interesting posts on our blog about the fast moving tiger beetles and extreme sex seen in animals, just like the marsupial mouse above.

If you would like to read more of these interesting stories from the world of science, subscribe to our blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!

Its official then! Mosquitoes do like biting some people over others

A mosquito biting
English: A mosquito biting the photographer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Are you the target for mosquitoes on a hiking trip? Does your family disagree with you when you say that you are being targeted by these buzzing creatures? Thanks to the paper published by G. Mandela Fernandez-Grandon and colleagues in PLoS One, you now have scientific evidence to tell everybody that you were always right about biting preferences of mosquitoes.  Three questions immediately spring to mind, a when you read something like this. One, how do you prove something as bizarre as this? Second, do scientists really spend time studying something like this? What else do we know about the biting behaviour of mosquitoes? Let’s dwell into them one by one.

How do you prove something like this?

First of all, to prove this you need a bunch of trained mosquitoes at your disposal. Well, mosquitoes are not like chimps who can be trained, so you need a mechanism to let them fly and pick their subjects and then monitor their behaviour. Well, there are Green Fluorescent protein mutant varieties of mosquitoes but the authors of the PLoS study used a simpler option.
Y Tube Olfactometer

                    Image credit: G. Mandela Fernandez Grandon
                    Source: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122716.g002
Called, the Y-tube olfactometer, this simple device is designed to allow two stimuli to be placed in the Y shaped arms. The mosquito flies in through the release chamber (at the top) and then actually has an option to choose between the two stimuli being presented to it. The study involved releasing a bunch of 20 mosquitoes in each go and two separate stimuli were placed at the end of the device. The researchers found that when the stimuli were non identical twins, mosquitoes seemed to be prefer one over the other (most mosquitoes were attracted towards one of the twins) whereas in case of identical twins the group of mosquitoes was split in halves, with both individuals attracting almost equal number of mosquitoes. These results were obtained after replicating the experiment 10 times for each set of identical/ non identical twins that were involved in the study.

Mosquitoes prefer biting some people over others

                                                                  Image credit: 

Since identical twins share the same genetic information, researchers now strongly believe that the reason why mosquitoes choose one person over the other might actually lie in our genes. While it is still early to know which genes actually are responsible for this effect, with next-gen sequencing at our disposal, it will not take us very long to pin point the genes in the near future.

Do scientists really study something like this?

Short answer, Yes. 

Long answer, scientists are not looking at this question just because it is intriguing or because somebody has a point to prove.  Understanding the factors that affect mosquito bites will help scientists come up with mechanisms that can be used to deter them. So, hypothetically, if we understand that expression of a particular odour keeps mosquitoes away, then a drug could be designed that will enhance the production of such an odour and can be administered in areas where mosquito bites are causing lethal diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya etc. A long acting drug like this would be much more effective in curbing these diseases than the mosquito repellents that we currently use.

What else do we know about the biting behaviour of mosquitoes?

There is quite a bit that has actually been done in the lab to understand the biting behaviour of mosquitoes. Ansell and colleagues (2002) found that Anopheles gambiae, the major malarial vector in Africa, prefers biting pregnant women over non-pregnant women. Similarly, Lacroix et al 2003 mosquitoes like biting people who have malarial infection rather than those who don’t. People with a greater body mass also act like mosquito magnets was found by Port et al 1980 and later confirmed by Logan et al 2010. More importantly, home remedies like eating garlic or vitamin B does not really have effect on mosquito bite deterrence as was discovered by Rajan and colleagues in 2005 and Ives and colleagues in 2005 respectively. But if you are an alehead, then Lefervre and his team (2010) are sure you are actually inviting Anopheles gambiae to bite you.

If you would like to know more about malaria and how we have responded to it, then there is a nice post about Living with malaria on our blog. Also, Justin Boddey at WEHI, Australia speaks to us about how his team has found a new way to stop the spread of malaria. 

If you would like to read more of these interesting stories from the world of science, subscribe to our blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!


Fernández-Grandon, G., Gezan, S., Armour, J., Pickett, J., & Logan, J. (2015). Heritability of Attractiveness to Mosquitoes PLOS ONE, 10 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122716

Ansell J, Hamilton KA, Pinder M, Walraven GE, & Lindsay SW (2002). Short-range attractiveness of pregnant women to Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 96 (2), 113-6 PMID: 12055794

Lacroix R, Mukabana WR, Gouagna LC, & Koella JC (2005). Malaria infection increases attractiveness of humans to mosquitoes. PLoS biology, 3 (9) PMID: 16076240

Logan, J., Cook, J., Stanczyk, N., Weeks, E., Welham, S., & Mordue (Luntz), A. (2010). To bite or not to bite! A questionnaire-based survey assessing why some people are bitten more than others by midges BMC Public Health, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-10-275

Rajan TV, Hein M, Porte P, & Wikel S (2005). A double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial of garlic as a mosquito repellant: a preliminary study. Medical and veterinary entomology, 19 (1), 84-9 PMID: 15752181

Ives AR, Paskewitz SM, Inter-L&S 101, Biology Interest Groups, & Entomology Class 201 (2005). Testing vitamin B as a home remedy against mosquitoes. Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, 21 (2), 213-7 PMID: 16033124

Lefèvre, T., Gouagna, L., Dabiré, K., Elguero, E., Fontenille, D., Renaud, F., Costantini, C., & Thomas, F. (2010). Beer Consumption Increases Human Attractiveness to Malaria Mosquitoes PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009546

11 Things you never knew Astronauts do in space

astronaut in space
Image credit:
Gennady Padalka, the Russian astronaut, recently completed the feat of spending a record 804 days in space, more than any other human being. Aboard the International Space Station, Astronaut Padalka is the commander of the International Space Station (ISS) that is closest thing to home that astronauts have in space and orbits the Earth fifteen times everyday. Although, movies like Gravity and Interstellar might have created a grim image of how life is in outer space, here is a list of 11 things you did not know that astronauts do in space.

  1. Watch Star Trek 
Latest Star Trek film (2009)
Image credit:

For those who are fans of Star Trek movies but locked out in space, you do not have to wait for an entry pass to Earth to catch up on the latest releases. Astronaut Michael Bratt was thankful to Paramount Pictures for letting him watch the latest edition of Star Trek on his laptop that was beamed via Mission Control in Houston. Find it hard to believe, you can even go to NASA website and read it for yourself. 

2.    Follow Guidelines for Fun

While becoming an astronaut requires months and years of hard work and following protocols to the last letter, space agencies such as NASA have also framed some policies for having fun when aboard space shuttles or the International Space Station (ISS). Flight plans for astronauts often include schedules for relaxing, exercising and even spare time. While looking outside the many windows is a popular past time among astronauts, they also get weekends off aboard the ISS and  can choose to play cards or read books or do something of their own liking in their spare time.

3.       Enjoy Zero gravity

The most amazing thing about space is the lack of gravity and astronauts do not let go of any opportunity to make most of it. Lack of gravity lets astronauts do many somersaults,  drink water without spilling them or eat potato chips just like Homer did when he travelled in space. 

Zero gravity fun
Image credit 

4.       Wash your hair 

While it may seem like a casual thing to do, here on Earth, washing your hair in space is something only a handful of people might have done. Why else, would you want to record such a mundane act and broadcast it via NASA’s official channel, if not to make your girl friends jealous.


5.       Cry

While the philosophical question about the tree falling in the deep forest being heard or not is still being answered by the greatest minds of the century, Astronaut Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency experimented with what it would be like to cry in space.

Well, Chris is a grown up man and does not cry at work, no matter how much homesick he might be feeling, so he tried wetting his eyes with drinking water and waited for simulated tears to roll down his cheek. The lack of gravity meant that this never happened and if you were to bawl in space, you would end up with a blob of tears jiggling like a jelly near your eyes.


6.       Play Football 

The FIFA Football World Cup is a popular event not only among fans on planet Earth but also among astronauts on board the ISS. What’s more, there is an International Football Cup played on the ISS, every now and then, and even if you miss the goals, you simply cannot miss the celebrations that follow. 


7.       Move without any effort

Somersaulting in the zero gravity must be a lot of fun but what is even better is moving without having to put in the slightest of effort.  This is definitely something for lazy bums like us where you can move around the house without having to lift a finger. Only thing is, the house needs to accelerate. Any ideas on how to get this done? 


8.       City watching

Staring at the dark space from the many windows of the ISS or looking at the stars is truly delightful. But what if you are feeling a little homesick and want to see something that is more human. Well, you can spot countries from up above and even cities or volcanoes from the ISS and this kind of Finding Waldo is a lot of fun. Don't believe me, watch this clip below.



9. Hang Out 

If staying inside the Space Station becomes a bit boring, there is always an option to take a walk out. Its just that people make a big deal about it and call it a Space Walk.

This picture of Bruce McCandless taken in 1984 has become quite synonymous with the words Astronauts in Space. 

Hanging out in space
Bruce McCandles Hanging out in space
Photo credit: Wikipedia

10.   Take snapshots

If you can have a treadmill, an exercise cycle and other things for yourself, then why not a high end digital camera as well on board the ISS.  This is what Chris Hadfield did with his spare time  and you can see some of his pictures here.


11.   Do a trialathon

If you are the kind of exercise buff, you can even complete a Trialathon in Space. Just like Sunita Williams did. While it was not exactly ‘swimming ’ that Williams did during this event but actually working out on specially designed strength training machine, running and biking were actually done by the astronaut on the ISS.

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