Happy Valentine’s Day … science!

• Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. And some say in supervolcanic eruptions, fungal outbreaks, y-ray bursts, or submarine landslides.

• “Yes, Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.”

• Am I linking to Christie Wilcox’s Scientific American article just for the headline? No, it’s an encouraging story about a medical refinement that will help sick people get better. But the headline is pretty terrific, too.

• “Japan plans world’s largest offshore wind farm near Fukushima.”

It will be larger than any of the offshore wind farms in the U.S. because even though it’s 20-freakin’-13 the U.S. still has no offshore wind farms.

• “Meet the House GOP’™s Anti-Science Committee,” writes TPM’s Benjy Sarlin. They don’t believe in climate science or evolution, but at least Todd Akin’s gone now and his former colleague Phil Gingrey says he was only “partly right” about the magical contraceptive powers of “legitimate rape.”

• As Ian Malcom said, “life, uh … finds a way.”

• “How Do Researchers Feed Thousands of Bloodthirsty Bed Bugs?

• “It’s no surprise that lots of Americans are falling in love with solar.”

• “Everything you believe about obesity is probably wrong,” writes Sarah Kliff of Team Ezra.

Kliff cites the New England Journal of Medicine on seven myths which have been “proven wrong in randomized, controlled studies,” and six presumptions, “which have not been disproved, but also lack any research backing.”

Most of these are reasonable-seeming theories — many of them are things you may have heard from teachers or health reporters or even from successful dieters and may have accepted as true. They sound true. But half of them are, in fact, contradicted by research. The other half, “are not currently supported by research — but have not been proven wrong either.”

• Ed Yong provides the best writing and reporting I’ve ever encountered on this particular subject:

The video was a revelation to Diane Kelly from the University of Massachusetts, and the key to interpreting the utterly bizarre penis of the American alligator. Here are the highlights: it’s permanently erect; it shoots out like toothpaste from a tube; and it bounces back because it basically has a rubber band attached to it. “It is really weird,” says Kelly. “Really weird.”

That’s not something she’d say lightly. Animal penises are her specialty.

• A convergence of inspirations: Carl Sagan tells the story of Eratosthenes.

That’s the right answer. Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet, and brains. Plus a zest for experiment. With those tools he correctly deduced the circumference of the Earth, to high precision, with an error of only a few percent. That’s pretty good figuring for 2,200 years ago.

I love that story, and I love that storyteller.

• Gnyaaaaaaaughhhh.

Sarah Laskow of Grist explains what you’re seeing in that NSFA (not safe for arachnophobes) video:

Spiders like these live in colonies of thousands. Thousands. And they make gigantic webs — webs more than nine feet in diameter. Nine feet.

That’s what you’re seeing here: several thousand spiders and their incredibly large web, from which many of them are falling onto the ground.

And Brad Plumer helpfully clarifies that these are probably Anelosimus eximius, a “social spider.” In the case of spiders, I think I prefer the quiet loners who keep to themselves.

But here’s what I can’t figure out about that video: Where are the birds? Or the bats? As skin-crawlingly awful as a sky-filled with thousands of spiders appears to me, to a bird or a bat, this should look like one big all-you-can-eat buffet.


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  • aunursa

    Happy Valentine’s Day to my Slacktivist friends!

  • christopher_y

    Happy Valentine’s Day one and all. I’m afraid me and mine are so romantic that we’ll be going out at the weekend after the restaurant prices come back down.

    (Eratosthenes was a genius, but I’m sure he didn’t need to establish the principle that the surface of the earth was curved: anybody who lived in a port city like Alexandria and had observed ships going hull down on the horizon could work that out.)

  • Baby_Raptor

    In other news, Canada’s politicians have apparently been playing a lot of Left 4 Dead.


    “Spiders like these live in colonies of thousands. Thousands. And they make gigantic webs — webs more than nine feet in diameter. Nine feet. That’s what you’re seeing here: several thousand spiders and their incredibly large web, from which many of them are falling onto the ground.”

    …I’m not going to sleep anytime soon now. *leaves to cuddle with her Rarity doll and shake*

  • Jim Roberts

    [slightly obscure Philip K. Dick reference]But without the spiders, who will keep the ants at bay?[/slightly obscure Philip K. dick reference]

    And Ed Yong is, in my opinion, the best science writer out there. My son was 8 when I showed him an article he’d written on hadrosaurs, my son’s favourites. He had me dictate a question to Mr. Yong, namely, “Since they kind of look like ducks, do you think hadrosaurs had feathers?”

    The response came three days later. It was a page long and full of references, but written at a level where my son could understand it. (The TLDR – they might have feathers, but not because they look like ducks)

  • Redcrow

    There are spiiiiders falling from the sky, they’d like to come and eat meet us… okay, I’ll stop now.

  • Baby_Raptor

    That is awesome. I bet your son was on Cloud 9. 

  • P J Evans

    I thought the spiders falling from the sky were like baby spiders that run out a length of silk and float away under it.

  • PatBannon

    If I saw spiders falling from the sky, I would not come out from under my bed until I received confirmation that the military was being deployed to stop them. Spiders from the SKY? Nopenopenope, a thousand times nope.

    Also, I can’t help but find it amusing that I’m seeing plenty of ads for Chik-Fil-A on this blog. This blog of all blogs…

  • I love that story by Carl Sagan. It was the first thing I ever watched from the “Cosmos” series. :)

    (and as a result I liked it so much I got the entire DVD collection :D )

  • Jim Roberts

    He was indeed. He is still determined to become a paleontologist and demonstrate that hadrosaurs were, in fact, feathered. I anticipate that this means that when he’s in his 60s, Ed Yong will get a first copy of my son’s paper proving this with a Post-it saying, “Told you so.”

  • Also, I can’t help but find it amusing that I’m seeing plenty of ads for Chik-Fil-A on this blog. This blog of all blogs…

    I have never seen a Chik-Fil-A add on this blog, but they do not serve Washington state, so I am sure that has something to do with the metrics.  However, I have seen adds for *ugh* Liberty “University”.  

    Talk about a miss-match… 

  • Lunch Meat

    I think you mean “Liberty” “University”.

  • Jim Roberts

    There are a few varieties of spider that transport through webbing. Some of them do just run out a simply length of silk. They aren’t babies, typically, as they often don’t have fully developed silk generation, but they’re small adults. Some spiders create silk balloons and kites and can be a bit larger – still about the size of your thumbnail, but larger.

    This behaviour, spiders working cooperatively to build flying sheets, is unusual, but not unknown. They’ve been doing this for quite some time, it’s just that in this particular instance they’re bumping up against humans a bit more than usual, and it’s happening on a larger scale than normal.

    And, of course, these sheets are nothing compared to the webs of some of the river-dwelling spiders, which can span the entire width of a river with a single web.

  • Carstonio

    Life beneath the ice? You mean like Beasts of the Southern Wild?

  • Carstonio

    I count this as good news on a Valentine’s Day, and I’m curious to know Fred’s thoughts:


    The name of Washington’s NFL team sounds like it escaped from a CSA alternate universe were all the pro sports teams had hateful epithets. And that’s no coincidence, either:


    George Marshall became the last team owner to hire blacks…The team’s rise to greatness started only after Marshall made changes similar to the one that must be made now. He had to change the lyrics of the fight song from “fight for Old Dixie” to “fight for Old D.C.” And, if he wanted to play at the stadium built on federal land, later named RFK, he had to give up at least some of his segregationist ways and hire black players.

    Marshall had intended to market his team primarily to Confederate sympathizers. He fought tooth and nail against bringing in black players. And he died in 1969 still racist to the bone.

  • I block a lot of Javascript (except patheos and disqus) so the ads don’t show. Mwahahahah. :P

  • AnonCollie

     I prefer Applejack, but yeah. Can’t sleep. Spiders will get me.

    And it’s Singles Appreciation Day. Le sigh.

  • Interesting!

    That said, this extract?

    “The landscape of journalism has changed a lot,” Kushner continue. “People take stands now.

    Is a little problematic. The same reasoning that can be used to justify adding moral color to news articles about this kind of unthinking racism can also be used to justify the likes of Fox News, who play fast and loose with the notion of an impartial reporter of the news.

  • Jim Roberts

    Well, it’s troublesome in addition to being completely wrong. Newspapers have taken stands since they began printing broadsheets, probably before then. I hope that the quote is simply missing some context.

  • MaryKaye

    My sister and I once rented rooms in Hana, on the wet side of Maui.  In the morning we went for a walk in the large attached gardens, looking for fresh mangos–which grow so abundantly in Hana that “fruit stands” consist of a pile of mangos and a box for money, on the honor system.

    We saw some biggish spiders, the kind that hold their legs together to form an X.  Then we saw some more.  Then we turned into a narrow path between two hedges with telephone wires overhead, and saw that the spiders had webbed from the wires to the hedges, completely enclosing the top of the pathway.  It looked pretty much like that Brazil video, though a bit smaller. 

    Then my sister said “We are going back to the house now, okay?” and we didn’t see any more of the gardens.

    I am not terribly arachnophobic anymore, but that was a lot of spiders even for me.  One felt one was about to walk into a web trap and never be seen again.

  • Well, in my view, people who report the news can just as capably use the facts they report to do the moral-color-lending, and save the opining for the editorial section.

    The danger here is, as discovered with science reporting, the insistent quest for “balance” leads to the false notion that science can be treated like politics.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    I’m curious, do the living things under the Antarctic Ice Cap have multiple eyes and mouths and emit the piercing cry of “TEKELI-LI” ?  ;-)

  • But here’s what I can’t figure out about that video: Where are the birds? Or the bats? As skin-crawlingly awful as a sky-filled with thousands of spiders appears to me, to a bird or a bat, this should look like one big all-you-can-eat buffet.

    The bird-eating spiders probably got them.

  • Jim Roberts

    Oh, I don’t disagree, it’s just not how the news works, or, really, has ever worked. The “both sides” thing aggravates me no end.

  • MaryKaye

    When prey animals swarm in large numbers, it’s often because this overwhelms the ability of predators to deal with them–that’s the probable reason for seventeen-year cicadas, for example.  Nothing to eat for a long time, then a bonanza which no one is prepared to handle.

    A biologist came to my lab once and said, “You are mathematicians here, right?  So tell me, why do periodic cicadas only come in 13 and 17 year varieties?  Both prime numbers!  But why not 11 or 19?”  We couldn’t help him, though it is an intriguing question.  One hint is offered by the fact that if a cicada gets it wrong–sometimes they do–it is generally wrong by 4 years.  13-year cicadas look, genetically speaking, as though they descend from local 17-year populations–enough cicadas jumped out early to establish a distinct breeding population, eventually a distinct species.  It’s the best example I know of speciation without any distance in space or food source–the two populations are separated only by time, but can only interbreed once every 221 years when their cycles coincide.  (If the cycles weren’t relatively prime, they would coincide more often.  Accident?  I don’t think so, but that’s as far as I’ve been able to go with thinking about it.)

  • AnonymousSam

    (sqrt(cos(x))*cos(300x)+sqrt(abs(x))-0.7)*(4-x*x)^0.01, sqrt(6-x^2), -sqrt(6-x^2) from -4.5 to 4.5

    … Too abstract? Here, Let me google-solve that for you.

  • patter

    Very sweet — on NPR site –from a scientist and atheist to Karen Armstrong: A Valentine From An Atheist To A Religious Scholar
    by Adam Frank


  • Carstonio

    My only quibble with your point about balance and stand-taking is that Fox News doesn’t fit the usual definition of bias. No real political slant or agenda other than demagoguery to prey on the fears of a specific slice of the demographic. If it had been around in the 1950s it would probably appear to be biased in favor of Southern Democrats.

  • AnonymousSam

    I refuse to use the site without adblock and noscript. ^^



  • In regards to the WaPo articles about D.C.’s NFL team: Just a friendly reminder to everyone from @AvoidComments (Don’t Read the Comments): “You’ve read your article, now stop scrolling and just close that page. There, doesn’t that feel better?”

    (In all seriousness: The name always irritated me, but I had no idea the deep cesspit of racism it sprang from. Great pair of articles about it. That said, why is the “Native American’s response to the football team” not an actual quote attributed to an actual person? Also: Nothing wrong with guys in dresses in the NFL. Ask Buddy’s Broads.)

  • Carstonio

    I admit I don’t understand the fear of all spiders or all snakes. I have no reaction when I see the former, and a momentary fear when I encounter the latter unexpectedly before I see that it isn’t poisonous. I usually say that the non-poisonous ones for both animals are our friends, eating troublesome insects and disease-carrying vermin. I’m more afraid of hitting a deer on the roads at night.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks. Here’s another one:


    the term Redskins dates to the settler era when hunters boasted about shooting down “damned government pets” and peddled Indian scalps as if they were animal pelts along with deerskins and bearskins.

    Marshall was a virulent racist and segregationist who liked to play Slave and Master. According to Thomas G. Smith’s book “Showdown,” when Marshall proposed to his wife, he hired black performers to dress up as chattel and sing “Carry Me Back to old Virginny.” He once said, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” He also once said, in answer to the charge that he was anti-Semitic, “I love Jews, especially when they’re customers.” 

  • A series of prominently displayed pseudo-articles defend the club’s use
    of a racial slur as a mascot on the grounds that lots of high schools
    are nicknamed “Redskins” too — so it must be okay. Which we can only
    take to mean that pretty soon owner Daniel Snyder will be skipping class
    to build a potato gun.

    …oh, good Lord, Snyder. Yes, there are and have been a lot of damned racists in this country leaving their legacies all over our public and private institutions. But is that really the company you want to keep?

    (Apparently, yes. Yes, it is.)

  • admit I don’t understand the fear of all spiders or all snakes. I have
    no reaction when I see the former, and a momentary fear when I encounter
    the latter unexpectedly before I see that it isn’t poisonous.

    What about the poisonous spiders?

  • Carstonio

    I just give it some space, unless I’m a situation to squish it with something heavy. The only poisonous spider in my state is not known for walking on the ground or floor.

  • PatBannon

    I turn off adblock and noscript for sites like this one, that I desire to not deny advertising revenue to.

    But, like, Facebook? Screw off, you already sell my personal information, you don’t need any more indulgences from me.

  • If you’re ever in Australia, and unlucky enough to see a funnel-web, please don’t just give it space. They’re deadly and should not be allowed to roam your house just because they’re not attacking you yet.

  • Carstonio

    Noted. I wouldn’t rule out any of them hitching a ride here and becoming established, given what’s happened with the snakehead and the Burmese python. 

  • P J Evans

     I’ve seen orb-weavers with webs where the top support strand was 20 feet long. That was always in the fall, when they were full-grown (and of an impressive size: the webs would sag under the weight of one). I never saw one running that line out, though: it would have been really interesting to watch.

    (I have seen a spider eating its old web in preparation for building a new one. Recycling is clearly not a new idea.)

  • *makes note to carry a big stick at all times when in Australia*

  • Cathy W

    Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights has filed a lawsuit asking the US Department of Education to require Michigan schools with Native American-related mascots and nicknames to change…

    (I’d think the Michigan Department of Civil Rights could do that without invoking the US Department of Education, but it may be that they’re pretty sure making the attempt would be akin to beating their heads on a brick wall, given our current state legislature, which has, in fact, asked the Department of Civil Rights to retract their complaint.)

  • Jim Roberts

    Every spring, in every house I’ve been a part of, the bush right next to the house is soon populated by spiders. They fight for resources and eventually there’s only a handful of them left, each filling a little niche. There’s always one, though, that’s larger than the others. I mean, a lot larger, and it usually lasts straight through until fall. This spider, who’s always named Aunt Nancy, is to be treated with respect by all who live in our house and all who come to visit, because it is by her that we don’t mosquitoes and black flies all over the porch. Spiders are kind of awesome.

    That said, Deird, your point on Australian wildlife is well-taken – tell me, how is this year’s dropbear infestation? I here they’re trying a new spray . . .?

  • P J Evans

     AFAIK the only team that actually has a right to be called ‘Indians’ is the Cleveland baseball team. One of their early pitchers was from a nation in Maine (or at least claimed to be – he was from Maine).

  • P J Evans

     As one of my friends says about the shiny black ones, they’re not immune to being flattened. (I will say that they’re very pretty. I’ll give one a couple of seconds of admiration before I flatten it.)

  • Nicanthiel

    Australia, the Land of EVERYTHING WILL KILL YOU DEAD.

  • AnonymousSam

    I would feel more guilty if they didn’t use Disqus, which has denied me access to most of the posts of the last 24 hours.

    (Well, I wouldn’t really feel guilty. But I’d have fewer excuses.)

  • Jessica_R

    Happy Valentine’s Day ya’ll. And in great news for romance marriage equality just passed in Illinois! 

  • Foreigner

    It was a hot summer night. (Yes, we do get those in England). The windows were wide open and I was upstairs, lying on the cool floor, buck nekkid, watching TV.  A huge, hairy, leggy spider ran across my bare chest.
    It took a long while for the cops to stop laughing after they found out the real reason for the horrible screams heard across wide stretches of North London. Kids shouted ‘Spiderman!’ after me for weeks. I’ve had it in for all arachnids ever since.

  • Vermic

    One hint is offered by the fact that if a cicada gets it wrong–sometimes they do–it is generally wrong by 4 years. 

    A careless cicada who oversleeps and misses the big 17-year emergence?  How has this story not been made into a DreamWorks Animation blockbuster yet?