Nov 9, 2017

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1. The power of news

News stories have a measurable impact on Americans taking to Twitter to talk about policy issues, according to a study published today in Science. Researchers found people — regardless of their gender or political affiliation — discussed race, immigration and other topics more often after stories were published than if news outlets weren't covering the issues.

The bottom line: If a few small outlets can have an effect on the national conversation as the study suggests, study author Gary King says bad actors may also be able to have a big impact. "And so we all have this responsibility to make some kinds of decisions about the entire ecosystem since it seems to be highly influential," according to King, who's a social scientist at Harvard University.

Read the rest of the story here.

2. Decolonizing science

Axios' Erin Ross writes: In classrooms in the U.S. and around the world, science is often taught as an idea that began with the Greeks. Now there is a growing movement calling for science to be decolonized, and to acknowledge the contributions and ideas of non-Western peoples.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists last month, South African science writer Sibusiso Biyela spoke about how language inequality can keep people — and ideas — out of science. Axios followed up with Biyela to ask whether colonization still influences science in South Africa today.

"Do you really understand something if you don't understand it in your own language?" Biyela asks.

Read the interview here.

3. Axios stories to spark your brain
  • Regeneration: A young boy with a rare disease lost 80% of his skin. Scientists used stem cell and gene therapy to grow him a new one, per Eileen O'Reilly.
  • Taxing: Steve LeVine on how the GOP's proposed tax bill could affect U.S. graduate students.
  • Click: A coconut crab has been caught eating a bird, reports Erin Ross. The behavior could have an impact on the distribution of birds on islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
  • ICYMI: Mike Allen interviewed Vice President and Dr. Biden and Sean Parker at an Axios event about cancer research and care yesterday in Philadelphia.
4. What we're reading elsewhere
  • Sheepish: Ben Guarino from The Washington Post writes about a study in which sheep learn to recognize celebrity faces. No pulling the wool over their eyes.
  • Mistakes: Erik Vance writes that the effort to save Mexico's vaquitas was doomed from the beginning because poaching that led to the porpoise being endangered wasn't addressed. "In fact, this whole effort has been one long lesson in throwing the porpoise out with the bathwater."
  • For the weekend: China has built the world's largest radio observatory to scan the skies for signals from extraterrestrial life. The Atlantic's Ross Andersen visited and wrote this sweeping story on what might happen if researchers there make first contact with another civilization.
5. Something wondrous

For all the emphasis on language's role in communication, many animals — including us talking humans — communicate non-vocally. We clap and knock on doors. Other unintentional sounds, like our footsteps, communicate our presence.

Other animals do the same. The wing songs of mosquitoes harmonize before they will mate. Rattlesnakes rattle, presumably to signal their presence. Darwin was interested in how these sounds influence our behavior and interactions.

"We're still discovering what animals do this, the biology of how and the relationship between how a sound is made and then how it is used by the animal," says Chris Clark, a biologist at the University of California Riverside.

Australian National University's Trevor Murray tried to address those questions by studying crested pigeons. First, the team synchronized high-speed video of the birds taking off (pictured above) with audio recordings and confirmed that the birds produced a distinct sound with their feathers when fleeing.

They then trimmed some of their feathers — specifically an unusually thin one and those surrounding it. When they played back audio recordings of the sound made without the skinny feather to other birds, the birds did not flee. (When the skinny feather was there, they did.)

The closest relatives of the crested pigeon don't have these unusually shaped feathers. And because the shape produces the sound, it suggests the feathers actually evolved to produce that sound, Murray says. The advantage of these built-in noisemakers? He says by fleeing together the birds may have a smaller chance that a predator will catch them.

Alison Snyder