Vol. 1 / No. 14 — Prognosticating Rodents, Super-Fast Stem Cells, and Magnetic Monopole-y

The Rodents Have Spoken

Photo Credit - Matt MacGillivray / flikr user qmnonic
Photo Credit – Matt MacGillivray / flikr user qmnonic

Once a year on February 2nd, we in North America ditch the science of meteorology, and consult the opinions of rodents on how much longer the winter will be: if they see their shadow, so goes the tale, then we get six more weeks of winter, if not, we get an early spring. Ignoring the fact that six weeks of winter still places us five days shy of the first day of spring, and is thus de facto an “early spring,” we have been told by three separate rodents this year to expect the full-length variety. Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, New York’s Staten Island Chuck, and even Ontario’s albino groundhog Wiarton Willie have all been frightened back into their holes by their own shadows, predicting more cold, one supposes, than we might otherwise have.

Ohio’s Buckeye Chuck broke with the trend, suggesting against all logic that spring will come early for Ohio, but not for New York, Ontario, or Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile as I write this, it is 50°f (roughly 10°C) in Boston, which is well above the average high of 37°f (3°C), certainly well above 1981’s record low of -5°f (-21°C), and still a bit shy of the record high from 1988, when the daytime high for February 2nd was 55°f (13°C). But it’s also not sunny here, so a hypothetical Boston groundhog wouldn’t have seen a shadow, and would have predicted an early spring. Go figure.

Edit: 2:30pm — Boston hit 55°f (13°C) today, making this officially tied for the warmest February 2nd ever recorded, and one of the most ironic predictions made by a collection of marmots to date.


If you’re still really interested in whether or not a groundhog can predict the spring, check out last year’s blog post from the Guardian. Four correct times out of thirteen predictions suggest that you’d be better off flipping a coin.

Stem Cells The Easy (Read: Cheap) Way

In what has to be the most important biotech news of the week, scientists announced the successful creation of stem cells from blood in the space of half an hour using nothing more complicated than table vinegar. By merely dipping mouse blood cells into acid, Japanese scientists from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology found they could rapidly and cheaply create patient-customized stem cells, possibly opening the door for the kind of individualized patient-specific treatments initially dreamed of when stem cells were first discovered. So far it’s uncertain how well the cell treatment will translate into humans — as the cells were taken from mice only a week old — nevertheless, this opens an exciting new avenue for stem cell research previously unexplored. Read the full article, Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency, in the January 30 issue of the journal Nature.

Google Gets Deep (Prepares to Build Skynet?)

This week Google surprised a grand total of nobody by buying AI development firm Deep Mind, adding it to the list of robotics and AI companies they’ve purchased over the past months. To date, that list is: Schaft, Industrial Perceptions, Redwood Robotics, Meka Robotics, Holonimi, Bot and Dolly, Boston Dynamics, and now Deep Mind. For a rundown on each one, check out this great post by Adam Clark Estes on Gizmodo: Meet Google’s Robot Army. It’s Growing. Over at TechCrunch, Darrell Etherington provides a rundown on just why Google might want Deep Mind (hint: it’ll probably be profitable and a little creepy).

Meanwhile, Google and Samsung have signed a patent-sharing deal, and has sold Motorola to Lenovo (makers of the ThinkPad, ever since IBM got out of the PC business). Over at Ars Technica, Ron Amadeo explains what the confluence of these two events might actually mean for the companies involved (for one, it’ll mean that soon my Note 3 won’t have two apps for every function).

Particle Fever

With the release of the list of Oscar nominations, and the popularity of science-fiction movie Gravity (ten nominations!) bringing the scientific world to the world of popular culture, it’s worth pointing out that a new documentary that’s actually closer to the science of things now has a release date: March 5. Particle Fever is a new documentary about the exploits of the Large Hadron Collider, which was recently used to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson (and with it, the Higgs Field). It’s already made its film festival debut and received great reviews. Check out the film’s website at particlefever.com, and watch the trailer below.


In the world of hard physics, scientists have now claimed the discovery / creation of a true magnetic monopole — or at least the simulation of one. While a typical magnet has, of course, two poles, the existence of magnetic monopoles have been predicted for the better part of a century. The team responsible, led by Professor David Hall at Amherst College in Massachusetts, claims to have created magnetic monopoles in a synthetic magnetic field. Other scientists are more skeptical because of the mathematical modelling involed, reporting statements such as “In some ways this is closer to what a real monopole would look like, but in some ways it’s further.” The full article, Observation of Dirac monopoles in a synthetic magnetic field, appears in the January 30 edition of the journal Nature.

Making the World Safe Again for Peanuts

Great news out of Cambridge, UK this week, with the announcement that a new oral immunotherapy (as opposed to injection-based) has had an 80-90% success rate in curing an allergy to peanuts in children. Essentially operating on the same logic by which Wesley is able to tolerate iocane poison in The Princess Bride — by having a little each day until the body could tolerate it (not, by the way, a good way to make oneself immune to actual poison). By the end of the study, 84% of patients could tolerate five peanuts without a reaction (five times the previous amount needed to set off a reaction). Afterward, the same treatment was given to the control group, of which 91% reached the same reaction levels. Widespread treatment could thus conceivably reduce the number of peanut-related deaths in the US each year from 50 (about the same as death by lightning strike per year) to 5. Check out newscientist.com for more.

Fake Skin, Real Replacement

This week io9 is reporting another medical breakthrough, this time about replacement skin. The problem with skin grafts right now is that the patients need to have enough of their own skin left to spare enough to spread around. A new technology is changing that, allowing skin to be grown complete with functioning blood and lymph vessels in it, which in theory should greatly reduce the amount of rejection that takes place. Of course, whether the technology will reach the patients is also a concern: if you think back to the revolutionary “spray-on” skin company, Avita Medical, you can be forgiven for wondering where that technology has gone. Recent woes at the company reveal that even when the idea is a great one, sometimes the business end doesn’t hold itself up.

Facebook Wants My Job

Finally, in other news, Facebook announced this week the creation of a “curated news service” called Paper in which real people go through the stories of the week and pick the best ones for readers. If that sounds familiar, well, it should. The down side is that they’re automatically going to have a million times more readers than me. The up side is that it’ll probably be a pretty cool service. I wonder if I can get a job.

Have a great week.