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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

Aug 29, 2018

Seriously, an empathy expert under fire for bullying? | Mama is a Neanderthal and Daddy is a Denisovan | Earth's Quick Flippin' Magnetic Field | Ancient Turtle Had No Shell | A****** of the Month: Tokyo Medical University | Pub Quiz


Science News with Amrita Sule and Sophie McManus

Empathy Researcher Accused of Bullying

I think this story deals with a very important issue in academia which is often not reported: bullying. Tania Singer, a 48 year old neuroscientist, director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany has been accused of bullying and intimidation by her former colleagues.

She is one of the world’s leading experts on empathy research and has spent her entire career studying and understanding human nature.

Max Planck institute was brought to notice about this bullying behavior last year. They started investigating the allegations last year and allowed her a year long sabbatical. However, they plan to bring her back to the lab and this is when the current and former lab members spoke to Science.

In an interview with science magazine, 8 former and current researchers from Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have accused Singer for manipulative and abusive behavior. The allegations include but are not limited to emotional abuse. Many one on one meetings have ended in tears for the lab members. Also, singer frowned up any female members getting pregnant and made no allowances for any medical appointments among others.

This is also ironical because one of Singer’s goals emphasized in a book she wrote in 2013) is to bring more attention to compassion in our society.  

More and more bullying cases are surfacing every now and then. A leading cancer geneticist Nazneen Rahman from Institute of Cancer research UK faced harassment and bullying allegations which dated around 12 years back. She is quitting her job next month.

But let’s not forget that the onus is is on the institutions to take these matters more seriously and also create a work environment where employees can fearlessly report such instances.

Washington Post


Mama is a Neanderthal and Daddy is a Denisovan

Researchers have analysed DNA from the fragment of an ancient child’s bone. This bond represents the first example of a first-generation hybrid human - Dad was a Denisovan, Mum was a Neanderthal. The girl, named Denisovan 11, affectionately nicknamed Denny, died 90,000 years ago. The study is published in the journal Nature.

The team, led by palaeogeneticists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, conducted the genome analysis on a single bone fragment recovered from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia. This cave gives its name to ‘Denisovans’, a group of extinct humans first identified on the basis of DNA sequences from the tip of a finger bone discovered there in 2008.

Scientists already knew that Neanderthals, Denisovans, and homo sapiens interbred in the past - but this discovery is the first example of genetic material from the first generation of these couplings. In fact, Svante Paabo, one of the leaders of the study, thought his colleagues must have ‘screwed up’ when they first told him what they had found.

The group knew the bone fragment came from a girl because they checked the bone fragment’s sex chromosomes. The density led them to estimate Denny was at least 13 years old when she died. The scientists even know which parental side was Neanderthal, and which was Denisovan, by looking at the bone’s mitochondria - the ‘powerhouses’ of cells. The genetic material in the mitochondria was recognised as Neanderthal. This shows the girl’s mother was Neanderthal because we only inherit mitochondrial DNA from our mothers. This finding corresponded with the fact that half her genomic DNA was matched to a Neanderthal. The Denisovan dad was confirmed by comparing the remaining genetic material to samples of Denisovans, homo sapiens and Neanderthal. Sort of like an ancient and elaborate dot-to-dot.

“To find a first-generation person of mixed ancestry from these groups is absolutely extraordinary,” - quote from population geneticist Pontus Skoglund at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “It’s really great science coupled with a little bit of luck.” As ever, scientists need that little bit of luck!

Science News, Nature


Ancient Fossil Turtle Had No Shell

A 228 million year old fossil of a turtle has been discovered in Guizhou province of south west China. The almost complete fossil is around 2 meters long and has been named Eorhynchochelys sinensis which means "dawn-beaked turtle from China”.

What is so special about this discovery? This turtle fossil lacks the iconic turtle shell but has a toothless beak (which is seen in modern day turtle as well). This fossil had a long tail and probably lived near shorelines.It is possible that its broad ribs, flattened shape and strong limbs were adapted for digging the mud to hide itself , bury eggs or find food.

This is the earliest turtle ever found with a sign of turtle -like beak. It joins the list of other fossils discovered previously.  A fossil aged 220 million years old Odontochelys semitestacea had a partial shell but no beak. Until now there have been many gaps in the evolution of turtles.

But, this discovery will help scientists in filling the gaps in the evolutionary puzzle.  The fact that Eorhynchochelys developed beak before odoctochelys but not the shell indicates that some traits can evolve independent of each other.

Modern day turtles have both beaks and shells, but the evolution did not take place in straight line. Some predecessors only had the beak while some had shells. This fossil discovery is going to prove helpful for scientists to understand how present-day turtles have evolved.  

Even though this discovery offer new insights into turtle evolution, scientists are still not sure where they will fit in the evolutionary tree. Past genetic studies have placed crocodiles, dinosaurs and modern birds as the close relatives of turtle.

Studying this fossil will shed more light on the evolution of the turtle body plan  and how turtles relate to other reptiles.

BBC Science and Environment


Earth's Magnetic Field Can Reverse Poles Ridiculously Quickly

Our planet is shielded by a magnetic field, which protects us from the hottest radiation thrown out by the Sun, thereby preventing Earth from deteriorating into a barren wasteland (although stay tuned for the next Climate Lounge to hear how we are achieving that goal all by ourselves!)

The magnetic field is thanks to the molten iron core of the Earth. So far, so good!

However, a few times every million years or so, Earth's magnetic field reverses polarity. Imagine an enormous magnet inside our planet gets flipped upside down - the magnetic North Pole would become the magnetic South Pole, and the energy field that typically makes up our planet's magnetic armour would weaken and break. Studies modelling this suggest that such an event would reduce the shield's protective strength by up to 90 percent. Hmm, do visions of an electrified wasteland beckon.

The last full reversal of the field was around 800,000 years ago and took hundreds of years to unfold. But wait - maybe we should worry! A new study is out in PNAS, suggesting such reversals may occur more rapidly than previously thought. Uh oh.

The team of scientists analyzed millenia of geomagnetic history coded into the atoms of an ancient stalagmite in China. This story written in stone told them that once, about 98,000 years ago, the planet's magnetic field suddenly flipped polarity in as little as 100 years — roughly 30 times faster than the generally expected rate, and 10 times faster than what was thought to be the fastest rate possible.

For now, we don’t have to worry - but if such a magnetic field reversal occurred in tandem with a solar storm, the likely result of this solar tantrum would be power outages on a scale never seen before.

Live Science, Space.com


A****** of the Month

Tokyo Medical University

In Japan the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been boasting about its program of “womenomics” (women economics?). This has been more of a goal than a reality certainly as, according to the World Economic Forum’s rankings of gender equality, Japan remains mired down at number 114 out of 144 countries.

So it came as a shock to some, and not shocking at all for others, when it was announced that Tokyo Medical University has been subtracting scores for women’s exams to get into this prestigious medical school. This has been going on for more than a decade.

An investigation showed they were subtracting scores for women applicants in a deliberate effort to keep their numbers down, and also falsifying exam scores to help specific men get into the school, like the sons of politicians.  

The managing director of the university, Tetsuo Yukioka said, “We have caused a great amount of trouble to everyone and betrayed the trust of society. I apologize from my heart."

Here’s how the manipulation worked: in the essay section of the entrance exam, which was scored out of 100, they first subtracted 20 percent from all marks. Then it gave 20 bonus marks to men who had taken the exam three times or less. So if a woman and a man had both taken the exam and scored 70 out of 100, the woman was given a score of 56 while the man was given a score of 76.

The proportion of women admitted to Japanese medical schools has risen steadily when it peaked at 34 percent in 2003, but hasn’t moved since then.

Interesting fact: Japanese women have a higher pass rate on entrance exams for almost every other university subject.

However, in medicine the pass rate is 6.85 percent for men and 5.91 percent for women.

Even with these incredible obstacles women pass the the test at less than one percentage point less than men.

Why the hell would they want to keep their best and brightest out of medicine?

Sources at the university have stated:

  • This was done because women are more likely to leave medicine when they have children which puts pressure on already overworked doctors.
  • The University has the legal right to accept whoever they want.

I’m ignorant of Japan’s maternity leave structure, but one good step towards making the above point moot is to provide both mothers and fathers equal time of paid leave when a new child comes into their homes.

In any case, this policy of institutional suppression is complete bull**** and must be ended immediately, and there better be some jail time as a result of this.

Tokyo Medical University, you’ve been crowned the month of August’s Blue Streak Science A****** of the Month.


Pub Quiz

  1. A mind-bending problem in pasta physics was finally solved last week, but the solution comes with a twist. What am I talking about?
  2. Scientists have discovered that female narwhals and beluga whales have something in common with human women. What is it?
  3. Scientists found a strange new type of neuron in human brains: what are they calling it?
  4. A beach in France was closed recently due to the amorous behavior of what animal?
  5. Secret tunnels were discovered! In the human body! Where?

In Closing

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

If you have any suggestions or comments email us at podcast@bluestreakscience.com.

This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

And our hosts today were Amrita Sule, and Sophie McManus.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us.

And remember...follow the science!