At long last: the return of the Best of Pubmed!

This piece continues the long dormant BEST OF PUBMED series, a regular feature of the early days of this blog. All of the following are actual articles that appear in the NCBI’s database of medical literature. In addition to their unusual titles and topics, the contents of the articles are often worth a look, as seen in some of the below.


The Renaissance or the cuckoo clock. Jonathon Pines, Iain Hagan
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2011 Dec 27; 366(1584): 3625–3634.

This one begins:

‘…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock’. – Orson Welles as Harry Lime: The Third Man

Orson Welles might have been a little unfair on the Swiss, after all cuckoo clocks were developed in the Schwartzwald, but, more importantly, Swiss democracy gives remarkably stable government with considerable decision-making at the local level. The alternative is the battling city-states of Renaissance Italy: culturally rich but chaotic at a higher level of organization. As our understanding of the cell cycle improves, it appears that the cell is organized more along the lines of Switzerland than Renaissance Italy, and one major challenge is to determine how local decisions are made and coordinated to produce the robust cell cycle mechanisms that we observe in the cell as a whole.


Is extinction forever?. Brenda D. Smith-Patten, Eli S. Bridge, Priscilla H. C. Crawford, Daniel J. Hough, Jeffrey F. Kelly, Michael A. Patten
Public Underst Sci. 2015 May; 24(4): 481–495.


Morbidity in assistants at surgical operations. D. Laerum, K. Skullerud
Can Med Assoc J. 1974 Mar 16; 110(6): 632–passim.

(In other words, watch out when the Doctor passes you a sharp instrument!)


Male Weaponry in a Fighting Cricket. Kevin A. Judge, Vanessa L. Bonanno
PLoS One. 2008; 3(12): e3980.  Published online 2008 Dec 24.


Women’s Preferences for Penis Size: A New Research Method Using Selection among 3D Models. Nicole Prause, Jaymie Park, Shannon Leung, Geoffrey Miller
PLoS One. 2015; 10(9): e0133079.  Published online 2015 Sep 2.

(Wonder what type of models they’re referring to…)


Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review. Justin R. Garcia, Chris Reiber, Sean G. Massey, Ann M. Merriwether
Rev Gen Psychol.

Published in final edited form as: Rev Gen Psychol. 2012 Jun 1; 16(2): 161–176.


Frequencies of injuries and causes of accidents during ski touring on ski slopes – a pilot study. [Article in German]. Ruedl G, Pocecco E, Kopp M, Burtscher M.

Erratum in Sportverletz Sportschaden. 2013 May;27(2):100-4.


Based on the findings of this pilot study we recommend abstaining from alcohol and not listening to music during downhill skiing to reduce the injury risk during slope touring.


How frequent and why are skiers and snowboarders falling? [Article in German]. Philippe MRuedl GFeltus GWoldrich TBurtscher M.

Sportverletz Sportschaden. 2014 Dec;28(4):188-92.


The incidence of falls among skiers and snowboarders was substantially lower when compared to that in 2002… We strongly assume that the lowering in fall incidence may positively affect the injury incidence.


“Spidey Can”: Preliminary Evidence Showing Arachnophobia Symptom Reduction Due to Superhero Movie Exposure. Yaakov S.G. Hoffman, Shani Pitcho-Prelorentzos, Lia Ring, Menachem Ben-Ezra

Front Psychiatry. 2019; 10: 354.


Superhero” boys live to tell the tale—just

BMJ. 2007 May 5; 334(7600): 928.

One UK hospital reported that five boys sustained serious injury while dressed as Spiderman or Superman. At least three of them had tried to fly without a planned landing strategy. Four of the boys sustained fractures and one a minor head injury. Guidance for parents of putative superheroes is available from the American National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Finally a new update to the Devil’s Dictionary !!!

Today’s entries in the Devil’s Dictionary include botoxsynthetic lethality, intelligent design, the Alien Simulation hypothesis, the Jellyfish hypothesis, and the Mars Radio hypothesis.

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2018 by Russ Hodge

Botox a toxin naturally produced by bacteria that is potentially a biological weapon of mass destruction. Although its use is strictly prohibited by international treaties, grandmothers everywhere cultivate it in their basements, in food that has been improperly preserved in Bell jars. If the apocalypse suddenly arrives, or if things get really out of hand at a family reunion, they find comfort in having a cheap, effective way of putting an entire clan out of its misery. If the worst-case scenario ever comes, they can slip it unnoticed into a meal, ensuring that everyone will die with a full belly and the taste of pie in their mouths.

Weapons of mass destruction have frequently made their way into medical practice (radiation poisoning, for example, both causes cancer and is used to cure it), and botox has become a tool in the arsenal of cosmetic surgeons. They apply it on a very local scale to eradicate the wrinkles and loose facial skin that occur in middle age. This is the point in life when a person has naturally used up his complete supply of smiles and other grimaces. The face becomes exhausted and relaxes its hold on underlying muscles. Botox tightens everything up again, usually drawing facial features to more or less the position they previously occupied. In the process skin is tightened to the point that it is difficult to smile without pulling on the ears, firmly and simultaneously, in opposing and outward directions.


Synthetic lethality  usually refers to an approach used to kill a cancer cell or some other undesirable biological entity such as a spider, or Uncle Bob’s deciduous ear hair. Synthetically lethal therapies combine two things that are harmless to their healthy counterparts but deadly to the offensive object. A spider, for example, can be handled by catching it between the floor and a rolled up newspaper applied firmly, with conviction. Newspapers and floors are normally harmless to humans, but if the spider escapes it may engage in some synthetic lethality of its own, combining teeth with venom – each of which is also fairly ineffective without the other. Overgrown ear hair can be managed with a pair of garden shears and a toilet plunger, providing the host is properly immobilized.


Intelligent design a theory which holds that the relationship between God and living species resembles that of IKEA to furniture; both, for example, are closed on Sundays. There are some differences: God (or whichever diety is currently in vogue) doesn’t put out a new catalogue each year. Some consider the theory’s name a case of false advertising, as in the case of “cheese food,” (which is neither cheese nor food) because species do not come with an Allen wrench or simple instructions for assembly.


The Alien simulation hypothesis a theory of the universe proposed on a message board by a sixth grader. From that point it spread in a viral-like pandemic that mostly infected computer nerds who live in their parents’ basement and subsist on a diet entirely hunted-and-gathered by telephone, with a nutritional value that can only be measured in BitCoins, who generally refuse any activity requiring that they interact with human beings. The movement’s most prominent adherent is Elon Musk, who explains it this way: “Forty years ago we had Pong, and nowadays our computer simulations are virtually indistinguishable from reality.” (Particularly the reality in the basement.) “In the near future they will be totally indistinguishable from reality. Therefore, there is only a one in one billion chance that we are not virtual characters in an alien computer game.” He has not published any calculations behind this figure, nor a definition of what “reality” might mean, since it is a concept invented within the game. Nor has he addressed the issue that the aliens who are playing this game are likely virtual characters in a simulation being played by an even higher-level of civilization, and so on; at that point it’s games all the way down.


The jellyfish hypothesis a theory of the universe which states that in reality, we are all jellyfish, and human life and our view of ourselves and our world is simply what the world looks like when filtered through the nervous system of a jellyfish.


The Mars radio hypothesis a theory held by at least one or two people that our bodies are robots controlled by brains that float in hydroponic tanks deep under the surface of Mars. Martians designed the robots to live on when their planet collapsed through man Martian-made climate change. They weren’t bad people Martians; they simply felt it was their religious obligation to keep reproducing and reproducing. When the planet was stacked nine-deep in Martians, they finally ran out of air. Rich Martians on top of the pile believed they were entitled to their status and fully ignored the eight layers holding them up. The high altitude provided a little more air which enabled them to outsurvive the rest of their species by seven whole minutes.

A few brains were placed in the underground tanks and Elon Musk, a Martian who escaped the catastrophe in his rocket automobile, designed the robots. They had to be fairly autonomous because it took time for transmissions to get to the brains and back. This explains, for example, blackouts that PhD students experience during their thesis defense. Sophisticated software covers the gaps and allows the robots to function when the brains go off-line. There are a few bugs, such as when a robot detects one stair too many or two few and falls flat on his face. Even so, on their own robots manage behavior such as binge shopping, listening to talk radio, and obeying authority figures who have hacked into their processors and convinced them that independent thinking is bad. At that point they do anything an authority figure says, even when it’s insane. After all, they are only robots.

More evolutionary monkeyshines

Is it ignorance? Early-onset senility? A misinformation campaign secretly funded by fundamentalist religious organizations? Or are most science journalists actually monkeys who have been chained to desks and trained to write blogs, in exchange for food?

You’d think that after 150 years of research and education, people who write about evolution would have acquired a dim understanding of it. On the other hand, you don’t need any qualifications at all to write about anything under the sun these days. I refer to a press tizzy triggered by a recent publication in Nature Communications. The subject was the fascinating field of monkey faces. You can find the paper here.

The paper demonstrates three things, which can be recovered from the abstract, if you take the time to read it:

• Scientists can model the faces of closely related species of primates on the computer.
• An analysis of markings on their faces show that over time, the faces of closely related species of monkeys have become more and more different.
• This could have had an evolutionary function by helping a member of one species identify members of its own species to mate with, which was more liable to produce fertile offspring than mating with members of another species.

What the popular press made of this was quite different. Here are some outtakes:

“The reason we all look different has been revealed by scientists – it is to avoid inter-breeding. Primates were found to have developed different facial appearances so that their group was easily recognizable as being different from closely related and local species.”


“Have you ever wondered why humans don’t all look the same? After all, we share a number of similarities on the inside, but on the outside we all have unique features. The answer, according to scientists at the University of Exeter and New York University, is that some animals developed this was (sic) to deliberately avoid interbreeding.”

Oh my, where to start? First of all, we have a confusion of inbreeding with interbreeding. Both are things you probably want to avoid, but it doesn’t hurt to keep them straight.

Inbreeding refers to mating between very closely related members of the same species – humans have laws against that; it falls under the category incest. The citations above focus on differences between the faces of humans – ergo inbreeding – which this paper tells us nothing at all about. If it did, the findings would imply that your brother or sister ought to look a lot different than you, presumably so that you wouldn’t be attracted to them and choose them as a mate.

The paper’s authors are actually talking about interbreeding between different species. It’s more like an explanation for why we look different from Neanderthals, or gorillas. If at some point humans, gorillas, and Neanderthals ran into each other all the time, maybe they visited the same pubs, you’d need to keep them straight. Otherwise at closing go home with a member of another species.

That might make for an interesting one-night stand, but any offspring produced by these encounters probably wouldn’t be fertile. Hybrids might go on to live long and happy lives, but since they couldn’t reproduce, they wouldn’t pass along their genes. So you’d never know – unless they wrote blogs about their experiences. Maybe they have. I haven’t checked.

Now an even worse mistake, from the point of evolution, is to assume that people, or monkeys, or anything else evolved some feature in order to achieve something. In fact, the opposite is true. A feature already has to be around for natural selection to work on it. If monkey faces look different, and natural selection gets its hands on them, then they might end up looking more different. You can’t actually prove that this is why their faces evolved this way, but at least it’s a plausible story.

The best way to understand this might be by looking at another paper published in Nature, concerning the discovery of variant of a gene called EPAS1 that helps Tibetans live at extremely high altitudes. What didn’t happen was some sort of committee meeting among early inhabitants of Tibet, where they sat around and said, “Hey, we ought to evolve in order to live up there in the high mountains.” Instead, a gene variant evolved that allowed some people to live much more comfortably at high altitudes. So they moved up the hill, got jobs as Sherpas and Yeti-hunters, and left everybody else down at the base camp.

And actually the new paper shows that Tibetans probably acquired this form of EPAS1 by mating with an earlier population of modern humans called Denisovans, who apparently belonged to a different sub-species. I guess they didn’t look different enough; after enough beer, or in the dim lighting of a bar, some interspecies mating took place. In this case the kids were fertile, at least some of them, and they did well at high altitudes. So the best place to find their descendants is a high mountain somewhere. They don’t have to live there, but they can. It would cut down on unwanted visitors and cell phone calls.

But this sort of “secret intentionality” is found all over the place in discussions of evolution – even in articles which are otherwise relatively good. In this one, for example, a writer summarized a new findings about feathers on Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur from the Jurassic period:

“The function of the Archaeopteryx’s feathers, the Jurassic specimen, on their hind limbs has left researchers scratching their heads. Scientists constantly debate about the use of the Archaeopteryx’s feathers, but it seems that finally they are yielding some possible answers.

“Paleontologists from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) aim to put an end to the dispute with regard to a well preserved specimen. The findings reveal that the first Archaeopteryx feathers were not evolved for flight, but for display.”

Once again, “were not evolved for flight, but for display…” Saying that feathers evolved for something is getting things backwards again. It would be better to write something like: “Feathers evolved in Archaeopteryx before it could fly. Once they appeared, they may first have influenced choices of mates, leading to adaptations in response to sexual selection. Whatever selective pressures acted on feathers, the result was structures that permitted flight. Once Archaeopteryx had that capacity, feathers surely underwent further changes as a result of new selective events.”

William L. Allen, Martin Stevens & James P. Higham. Character displacement of Cercopithecini primate visual signals. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4266 doi:10.1038/ncomms5266.

The science story that has it all

Some scientific stories – think of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA – are so electrifying that you instantly realize they’re bound for a Nobel prize or some other lofty pinnacle of greatness. This wasn’t one of them. My first impression was that it was free-falling rapidly in the other direction. If nobody has put it up it for an IgNobel yet, you may consider this article an official nomination.

It’s one of those quirky little pieces that make you think, “Wow, you can obtain funding for anything if it’s crazy enough,” or “The guy who wrote this grant must be a genius; let’s hire him,” or “There are waaay too many people getting PhDs these days.” But then you bite into it, the way you might try a hamburger made of soybeans, just to please your girlfriend, and you realize that it’s the gift that keeps on giving, if only in the form of several days of gastrointestinal distress.

I’m speaking, of course, of the invention of 3D eyeglasses for praying mantises. If you haven’t seen the pictures, visit this site and prepare not to get much work done for the next few hours.

The project is the work of Jenny Read, from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. The story issued by their press office doesn’t mention publication in a peer-reviewed journal, but it does say that the group received £1 million pounds from a certain Trust, so who cares? (I’m not naming the Trust until I’ve sent them five grant applications that I’ve been hanging onto, waiting for just the right funding body; I found the story, so I have the right to a head start.) In case you were wondering, £1 million pounds amounts to 1.23 million Euros at today’s rate of exchange.
Besides, who cares about getting a paper published when your work produces a video that will go instantly viral? Or maybe the lab was about to be scooped, and had to get the story out there.

I will return to the fascinating scientific aspects of this story, and its wonderful potential for industrial applications, but first let me say that this is obviously one of those projects that started in a pub. They caught a praying mantis by trapping it in a beer glass; everybody gathered around, and somebody said, “Hey, I bet to that bug, we look like we’re on a huge IMAX screen.”

A lot of British studies, particularly from psychological research, start in a pub and spend millions proving things we already know. Remember the classic paper proving that “Men and women who have consumed a moderate amount of alcohol find the faces of members of the opposite sex 25% more attractive than their sober counterparts.” That one got its support from the Universities of St. Andrews and Glasgow, which were probably closest to the pub.

This type of research is much harder than it sounds. It requires a particular skill set: you have to be able to do statistics, or at least count, while drunk. Then you have to remember to save all the soggy napkins and beer coasters that you’ve been using to gather statistical data. Finally, you must be able to read your own handwriting in the morning. It’s worth cultivating these talents as you work on your PhD; they’ll practically guarantee you a position in a lab in the UK.

But back to the praying mantis. One intriguing part of the story is that, as opposed to other insects, this species already has 3D vision. That’s because they have smooth eyes, as opposed to the eyes of certain dragonflies and moths, which are broken up into 30,000 or so bubble-like ommatidia. I guess that means they have 30,000D vision, which probably makes it hard to see anything at all. It’s a good thing such insects don’t drive cars, because they’d need a lot of mirrors – all of which would be labeled, “Objects in the mirror are fewer than they appear.” Now those are insects that could really use 3D glasses, just to watch normal TV, but it would take a farm of Cray supercomputers 12 billion years to work out the optics and design the things, and by that time the dragonflies would have evolved into helicopters.

How do you attach glasses to a praying mantis? With beeswax, of course. You grab a mantis, glue some glasses to its eyes, and stick it in front of a computer monitor which is showing The Fast and the Furious 17, or whatever number they’ve gotten to these days. If the mantis jumps back to avoid getting mashed on the grill of an oncoming car, you know that the glasses work. Another good piece of evidence is if the mantis tries to grab Paul Walker, mate with him, bite off his head, and eat him. I’ve known a few human women who respond the same way when they see Paul Walker in 3D.

One of the researchers involved in this project was a certain Dr. Vivek Nityananda; say it three times in a row, fast, and you really have to wonder if Newcastle is pulling our leg. He proclaims: “This is a really exciting project to be working on. So much is still waiting to be discovered in this system. If we find that the way mantises process 3D vision is very different to the way humans do it, then that could open up all kinds of possibilities to create much simpler algorithms for programming 3D vision into robots.”

I find this somewhat enthusiastic, but molecular biologists say such things, too; translated into their discipline it comes out: “3D glasses attached to the eyes of praying mantises present a promising new target for potential cancer therapies.” Particularly cancer of the eyeball, I suppose.

Dr. Vivek Nityananda doesn’t mention the fact that the research should also result in a lot more customers attending the local IMAX. You could fit 1,980,722,314,222 praying mantises into the theater, although it’s unclear how they will pay, unless the research subjects are getting a cut of that £1 million pounds.

For a writer there’s an even more compelling reason to be interested in this project. Garrison Keillor, the great American humorist, once said that a great story has five elements: a mystery, religion, money, sex, and family relationships. In a Nov. 8, 1997 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, he managed to capture them all in just twelve words, although it’s 14 if you expand the contractions:

“God,” said the banker’s daughter, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who’s the father?”

By extension, the perfect science story would have those elements, too, plus a bit of technology. That’s rare, but here we have them all, if you think about the mating practices of female praying mantises, usually with males from their own species, or perhaps with Paul Walker. Add this story’s elements of murder and cannibalism, and I foresee a book, a screenplay, and a feature film. I’m currently trying to buy the rights to the story. There’s still time to get in on this; just send me a mail and I’ll tell you where to send your contribution.

The sun has a sibling – but are they holding hands?

I guess the birth announcement got lost in the mail, which is understandable given the fact that it happened a few billion years ago, somewhat before the invention of e-mail or even a postal system. In case you haven’t heard: our Sun has a sibling! And it’s a girl!

She’s called HD 162826, which will give her some grief during grade school, but probably not as much as if she had been named Moon Unit Zappa, Elbow (3 children were given that name in 2009), Hotdog (2 in 2012), or Freak (34 in 1995). I don’t know how you determine the sex of a star, but apparently someone can, because everybody says HD 162826 is a sister. I’d love to send my congratulations to the parents, but their identity is somewhat vague.

In any case, the discovery of the Sun’s sister has triggered an outpouring of emotional responses and some typically wild speculations on the part of the press. The first article I saw on this was here, and this piece is interesting for a number of reasons. It gets off to a great start with this sentence:

“Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin has discovered that a previously known star may actually be the sibling of our own Sun.”

“Researchers… has discovered” is a little strange, but maybe that’s how they talk in Texas. All right, in the excitement it seems petty to quibble about the conjugation of verbs. The article continues:

“The possible solar system is located a mere 110 light years away from the solar system.”

This sentence is also intriguingly strange. First off, there’s nothing “mere” about “110 light years away,” at least if you’re using Google Maps to plan your trip. (I tried, and the closest hit is Hd’s Mesa, an employment agency on 1826 W. Broadway Road, Mesa, Arizona, a mere 9,100 km from my present location.)

A light year is 9.4605284 × 1015 meters. It would take the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is traveling at a maximum rate of 62,136 km/h, at least 1,909,787,303,382.4 years to get there. That’s only if Voyager 1 is pointed exactly in the right direction, which I kind of doubt, and only if I’ve done the math right. If you find an error in my calculations, let me know.

Of course you have to take into account that 1,909,787,303,382.4 years is about 138 times longer than the current age of the universe (depending, of course, on the date at which you are reading this.) In 1.9 trillion years the universe will either still be expanding, or collapsing in on itself, depending on your feelings on the topic of dark matter. In the expanding universe scenario, some scientists calculate that the universe might double its size in 11.4 billion years. It’s unclear how things will go after that, but Voyager 1 will clearly need somewhat longer to arrive. If, on the other hand, you’re a proponent of universal contraction, everything will be closer together, so the trip won’t take quite as long. Maybe Voyager 1 should just park somewhere and wait.

But the intriguingly strange sentence above (“The possible solar system is located a mere 110 light years away from the solar system”) has more to offer. I suppose “the possible solar system” means that the sibling sun might also have a solar system, and “the solar system” at the end of the sentence presumably means “our solar system.” If I’m wrong, and these two phrases refer to the same solar system, I don’t quite understand how a thing can be 110 light years away from itself. Unless you are talking about some sort of weird, alternate reality. Of course, physicists like that kind of thing – remember Schrödinger’s cat, which demonstrates not only the possible existence of parallel universes, but also that Erwin Schrödinger had some serious issues with cats.

The idea that our planets might have long-lost siblings is old news. Earth’s first sibling was found in 2007, as you can read here. I’ve covered that story in an earlier article. A second sibling was found this year. The first candidate, Gliese 581c, is a mere 20 light years away, while Kepler 186f is 500 light years from us. That’s just how it goes: “children” (or planets, in this contorted world of familial metaphors) grow up, relocate to distant places, attend the university, and acquire huge amounts of debt before moving back home to live in the basement.

Both of these planets are “sisters.” It’s easier to tell the sex of a planet, I suppose; at least you can get closer and inspect them, without getting burned to a crisp.

* * * * *

In case you hadn’t noticed, I could go on talking about unusual grammar and interstellar sex determination all day. But the discovery of our “sister sun” has also prompted some scientific speculations that are worth considering. Consider this from the Tech Times article I cited above:

“Aside from being a potential sister star to the Sun, Ramirez and his colleagues also believe that there is a very small chance that the HD 162826 system could have planets suitable for life. While the chances may be small, the researchers are certain that the odds are not zero.”

I can’t resist one linguistic point here: the first sentence implies that the potential sister star is Ramirez and his colleagues. This is a common grammatical mistake called a “dangling participle.” The problem becomes clear if you consider a sentence such as, “Hanging from a tree, the firemen rescued a cat.” But more intriguing is the comment, “the researchers are certain that the odds are not zero.” It’s hard to find just about anything for which the odds are truly zero (rather than 0.0000000…00001); try it sometime and you’ll see.

Another article about the finding puts it this way:

“One of the most exciting consequences… is the likelihood that these stars support planets, and possibly even life. Back when the Sun’s siblings were all hanging out in their nursery together, there would have been a robust, inter-system exchange of planetary material and chemical runoff. Enriched chunks of early Earth could have been launched into other fledgling solar systems, seeding the potential for life on other planets.”

Now I don’t know how this passage strikes you, but there’s a point at which you have to be cautious about metaphors. There’s some serious hanky-panky going on in this nursery school. “Exchange of planetary material and chemical runoff” are clearly euphemistic references to some sort of bodily fluids. If you’re generous you might think the topic is spilling KoolAid, but then you get to the part about launching “enriched chunks of early Earth,” and it’s hard not to think about kids throwing around poop. Finally we get to “seeding the potential for life” – a figurative climax, if not a literal one. If by that point you haven’t figured out what the author is talking about… Let’s just say it’s not the kind of day care I’d consider for my kids.

Coming back to the science, one should remember that this nursery probably existed over 4 billion years ago, when things were pretty hot, and I’d say the limb that supports these speculations is a pretty long one. But some notable scientists – Berzelius, Kelvin, Hermann von Helmholtz, Francis Crick, and Stephen Hawking – have promoted this type of panspermia hypothesis, and I’m not one to argue with such bright bulbs.

This second piece from (clearly one of the first places you’d go to check out the latest findings from research) goes on to say:

“The idea that we might have genuine biological relatives on planets orbiting distant solar siblings is certainly tantalizing.”

I don’t quite know what they mean by “genuine biological relatives,” unless they’re referring to Vulcans, or a long-lost cousin named Bob, but it’s safe to say that the idea is tantalizing. Most things are, to somebody.

I’d like to jump into the fray of wild speculations by suggesting that our Sun and its sibling might be holding hands. That happens sometimes, as shown by the recent birth of twins. On Mother’s Day, at that. What are the odds of that? Certainly not zero.

Cheap thrills #1: It’s Godzilla! No, wait, just a really big platypus!

“Cheap thrills” is a new column devoted to those cases in which scientists and/or their media cronies go waaaay out and oversell a story to get HITS on their websites. Sometimes this reflects nothing more than the heavy hand of an over-caffeinated headline writer, but sometimes the scientist is fully complicit. For example…

For those of you who missed this magnificent story yesterday, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia have discovered GODZILLA! Well, not really; they found a fossil of a platypus. And it was an astounding TWO TIMES the size of a modern platypus – over a meter long!!! This dramatic discovery, naturally, prompted one of the discoverers to call the beast “Godzilla”. See the story here:

My memory of Godzilla is a city-crunching lizard, about 1,000x the dimensions of anything found in nature today, several times the size of the largest dinosaurs… But a three-foot platypus? Give me a break. Is there something about Australia that makes everything look bigger, or is it just me?

This is not just the work of a press officer; the scientists played along. Here are some quotes from the original article:

“It pretty well blew our minds,” University of New South Wales professor Mike Archer told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. of the animal, which is estimated to be about twice the size of the modern platypus.

“And then bang out of the blue drops this monster. Platypus Godzilla.”

And my favorite: Archer goes on to say…

“Platypus Godzilla. You can imagine the humorous scenes where somebody looks at the modern platypus and says ‘That’s not a platypus’ and and then picks up this monster and says ‘That’s a platypus’.”

Sigh. Evidence that scientists have a sense of humor? All right, it’s painful, but at least give them marks for making an effort…?

Another headline for this winning story:

“Scientists discover monstrous, flesh-eating platypus”

from the link:

At least that story’s a little more… modest. This press release quotes another researcher on the paper, Suzanne Hand, who seems a bit less outspoken. Sorry, Mike, I’ll be getting my news from Suzanne from now on.