2011: Rats attracted to cats, prion-killing lichen & mimicry

As we reach the end of 2011, I thought I’d share some science stories with you that I found fascinating and inspired to me remember just how amazing the world around us is. All of these stories were craftily told by science communicators in the past year.

My favourite science stories of 2011

1. Carl Zimmer / The Loom – Fatal Attraction: Sex, Death, Parasites, and Cats

This post by the incredible Carl Zimmer talks about new discoveries of the brain-infecting parasite Toxoplasma and is my top post of 2011. Toxoplasma‘s hosts include cats and rats and Carl tells the amazing story of how rats brains are manipulated by the parasite to lose their fear of cats… even to the extent where they could be sexually attracted to them. I have retold this story in many pubs this year as it shows just how amazing parasite life-cycles are. [Read post]

2. Jennifer Frazer / The Artful Amoeba – Lichens vs. the Almighty Prion

If you were at the recent Ignite #8 talk in the Science Gallery, you’ll know how much the prion (infectious protein responsible for BSE / CJD) amazes me. This post reignited my passion for the prions and their amazing properties. It is a brilliant overview of prions and their power against UV radiation and extremes of hot (autoclave) and cold (freezing). I was also shocked by the lichen’s powers against the prion. An example of the how often in science clues can turn up in usual places! [Read post]

3. Ed Yong / Not Exactly Rocket Science – Harmless snakes avoid danger by mimicking the triangular heads of vipers

Towards the start of my science writing journey this year, I discovered Ed Yong’s blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science. This was the post that I enjoyed the most from his blog this year but it was very hard to pick it due to the vast array of interesting topics he covered (his favourites are listed here). Mimicry is an incredible aspect of evolution where one animal/plant mimics the action or appearance of another. Ed Yong details how some harmless snakes in Europe flatten their narrow heads into a triangle, mimicking the shape of their more dangerous cousins, the vipers. This gives them protection from birds of prey. This post also includes my favourite video of the year showing a mimic octopus. [Read post]

4. Humphrey Jones / The Frog Blog – What Kind of Science Programmes Should RTÉ Commission?

Back to this side of the water, the Frog Blog has been a great source of science news and fun facts throughout the year. This post motivated science communicators into action and got our community talking about science programming in Ireland. It is a great example of the power of science blogs and social media. [Read post]

5. Marie Boran / The Irish Times – Crowd computing: Oxegen

I really enjoyed this article earlier this year which looked for the perfect festival formula. The science behind groups interaction, overindulgence and festive love were included. The technology required for the right sound at outdoor concerts stood out for me: “Electricity moves faster than the speed of sound, so this relayed music needs to be delayed before it reaches the ears of those farther back in the crowd.” [Read post]

6. Aoife McLysaght / The Anti Room – The problem with girls and maths

The Anti Room was an incredible blog where women talked about topics which ranged from feminism to art to science. Unfortunately it is on an indefinite break at the moment and is sorely missed! The wonderful Aoife McLysaght wrote this particular post about how prejudices and presumptions influence girls ability to perform well at maths. [Post no longer online]

Other inspiration

Above is a very short list of my favourite science stories this year but others writers that I read extensively include Claire O’Connell (The Irish Times), Eoin Lettuce (Communicate Science), GrrlScientist (The Guardian) and many more (see blogroll)!

Science Calling’s 2011

I really enjoyed working on Science Calling this year and below are the stories I had the most fun writing/researching:

Science Calling’s most popular posts of 2011 were:

  1. Light science: optogenetics
  2. Irish presidential candidates: science vision (parts 1 & 2)
  3. Turning plastic into petrol wins top SciFest award
  4. The science behind Irish proverbs
  5. Human evolution: cavemen’s secret

The first few months of this blog have been unbelievable thanks to everyone who reads it! I’d also like to thank those who have contributed guest posts over the past few months (Vincent Kelly, Niamh Shaw, Dr. Éilis McGrath and David Delaney). Highlights of 2011 include being shortlisted for an eircom Spider, invited to blog at the Falling Walls conference and speaking at Ignite #8. Lots to build on in 2012!

Happy New Year from Science Calling!