Does Growing Time Lag for Nobels Portend End of Fundamental Discoveries in Physics?

Some idiot over at National Geographic just wrote a column titled “Science Is Running Out of Things to Discover,” and the commenters are hammering him.

Yeah, I’m the idiot, and I thought I’d use this blog for a follow-up.

Richard Feynman, shown receiving Nobel Prize in 1965, warned in 1967 that the era of fundamental discovery in physics must end. Recent trends in Nobel Prizes seem to corroborate his prediction.

First of all, notwithstanding the headline, my National Geographic column is really about physics, not science as a whole. The news peg is a short letter in Nature on how it’s taking longer and longer for scientists to get Nobel Prizes for their work, especially in physics. The time lag is increasing so sharply that by the end of this century no one will live long enough to be honored. Funny, huh?

A National Geographic editor asked the letter’s lead author, Santo Fortunato, what the trend meant, and he suggested that science is “scratching the bottom of the barrel in fundamental science” and “running out of fundamental discoveries.” That reminded the editor of my 1996 book The End of Science, so he invited me to riff on the Nature piece, which I did. The Nobel trend in physics, I argued, supports my book’s assertion that further research will yield “no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.”

If you still doubt this claim after reading my National Geographic piece, look at the physics Nobels over the past few decades. With one exception, the work consists of contributions to long-established theories in particle physics, condensed-matter physics, astrophysics and cosmology–as well as the invention of technologies such as neutron spectroscopy and integrated circuits.

This is what philosopher Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science,” which extends and reinforces rather than challenging or transcending existing paradigms. The lone exception—and by far the most thrilling scientific revelation of the past few decades–is the acceleration of the universe, discovered in the late 1990s and honored with a Nobel in 2011. This is the kind of anomaly that could lead to a paradigm shift in physics, but so far it remains just an odd twist of big bang cosmology.

One crucial assumption of my end-of-science argument is that physics has actually figured out, to an astonishing degree, how reality works, and so has become a victim of its own success. I don’t subscribe to the hard-core postmodern position that all scientific claims are actually just “stories” subject to endless rejection and revision.

But I have high standards of evidence, as do, for the most part, the Nobel judges. Ambitious physicists have sought to transcend current paradigms with conjectures involving strings, branes, multiverses and other exotic eidolons, but none of these speculations has been empirically confirmed—or is likely to be, for reasons that I’ve spelled out previously. (See also my comments on whether recent observations of cosmic microwaves confirm inflation, a theory of cosmic creation.)

I’m far from alone in raising these concerns about physics. Last year, physicist Lawrence Krauss, while rejecting my claim that science is ending, conceded that there may be “new limits looming on our ultimate ability to probe nature—made manifest because of the truly remarkable successes of physical theory and experiment in the past 50 years—due to the accident of the circumstances in which we find ourselves living, which could, at least in principle, change the way fundamental science may progress in the future… Perhaps then, at the extremes of scale empirical science will reach its limits, and we will be reduced to arguing about what is plausible, rather than testing our ideas.”

If Krauss doesn’t impress you, how about Richard Feynman? In his 1967 book The Character of Physical Law Feynman wrote: “We are very lucky to live in an age in which we are still making discoveries. It is like the discovery of America—you only discover it once. The age in which we live is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, and that day will never come again. It is very exciting, it is marvelous, but this excitement will have to go. Of course in the future there will be other interests. There will be the interest of the connection of one level of phenomena to another—phenomena in biology and so on, or, if you are talking about exploration, exploring other planets, but there will not be the same things we are doing now.”

One final point. Some National Geographic commenters said I reminded them of two failed prophets of the late 19th century: the U.S. patent official who wanted to shut down the patent office because everything had been invented; and the British physicist Lord Kelvin, who said that physics was finished. I debunked these apocryphal tales in The End of Science. I’ll offer details if anyone wants them.

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Comment: Noah film is more accurate than most children’s Bible stories

Dr Katie Edwards, Lecturer in the Bible in Contemporary Culture and Society at the University of Sheffield comments on the accuracy of new Biblical epic Noah.

Noah film is more accurate than most children’s Bible stories

by Dr Katie Edwards, 11 April 2014, posted on The Conversation

The long-anticipated biblical epic, Noah, has been released to a tidal wave of reviews, comments and criticisms on the film’s “accuracy” in its adaptation of the flood narrative in Genesis. And granted, Aronofsky has taken some liberties with the story. His re-imagining of Noah’s ark is a noisy hybrid of The Road, The Lord of the Rings and, well, the Bible. Yet, among the groundswell of voices calling out the director on his infidelity to the text, there are few who’ve noticed that every biblically inspired cultural product adds and/or subtracts from the text.

Take a look at any children’s Bible. Very often, a kind-faced geriatric Noah looks out at the reader, with a happy rainbow and a couple of contented giraffes by his side. Popular cultural re-appropriations of the biblical story are sanitised, so distant from the grand-scale genocide of Genesis that Noah’s ark has become a standard children’s toy for families from every faith or none.

Now turn to the beautiful, blond, blue-eyed image of Jesus, which has become a cultural staple – faithful to the biblical text? We don’t get a physical description of Jesus in the New Testament, but it’s probably a stretch to imagine that a man from ancient Israel would look like a Californian surfer dude. Why don’t these “inaccuracies” create the same controversy as the recent Noah film?

Perhaps what makes the film unpalatable is that it’s so different from the re-tellings of the biblical flood story with which we’re familiar. Aronofsky doesn’t shirk from the representation of mass genocide with children’s Bible-esque gloss. In the biblical text, God is sorry that he’s created humankind and responds to their earthly violence with spectacular brutality, which is successfully tempered by the Bible’s spare language and detail. In the film the fierce savagery of the flood is visualised – we see innocents being killed (children, babies, animals are all mistreated and murdered during the film – not least by “The Creator”, whose actions wipes out all the shrieking, crying parents and toddlers indiscriminately).

Of course, the director does make some noticeable changes to the biblical story. To the sparse verses in Genesis he adds an adopted daughter/daughter-in-law, Ila (Emma Watson); a power-hungry king, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone); twin granddaughters, and some CGI generated “Watchers” – fallen angels trapped in stone “bodies” who are reminiscent of the Ents from The Two Towers.

Sure, Aronofsky has done some serious filling of gaps here, but who can blame him? The Bible is notoriously spare in its narratives and there are a lot of gaps to fill to carve a two-hour blockbuster from a few verses. But, commentary that recognises the similarities between the film and the text remains few and far between. This is surprising given that Noah is more faithful to the overarching themes of the biblical story then we might have been led to believe in the run up to the its general release.

Issues of gender and sexuality are central to this film, just as they are in the Bible. The Bible is clear: after the flood God wants humanity to “go forth and multiply”. The surviving creatures are in handily heterosexual couples to aid in the re-establishment of humankind on earth (although, according to our Hollywood Noah, humanity would be astonishingly free from racial diversity – every character in the film is white).

Aronofsky’s Noah, too, is incredibly traditional in its construction of gender and sexuality. The filmic Noah initially believes that humanity is inherently wicked and should die out, along with his immediate family, who he doesn’t want to procreate. Russell Crowe’s Noah says that each member of the family will bury an elder member, until only Japheth is left and humanity, and therefore wickedness, will die out with him.

But oddly, this absence of a divine procreation mandate in the film doesn’t diminish the huge value placed on heterosexuality and prescribed gender roles.

For example, Noah is a man. We know this because the genders of the cast are repeatedly pointed out and confirmed throughout the film. Ila, Noah’s daughter, is a woman, but not a “real woman” because femininity, what it means to be female – really female – in the film, is to possess a functional womb. Ila becomes upset because the fertility issues caused by an childhood injury mean that she isn’t a “real woman”, and she pleads with Noah to find a “proper wife” for Shem. No one in the film takes issue with this construction of femininity and any difficulties are sloughed off when Methuselah (Antony Hopkins) magically repairs Ila’s reproductive organs with a touch of his hand.

Ham, on the other hand, is alone – desperately alone. Both Noah and Tubal-Cain demand that Ham demonstrate his masculinity on a number of occasions throughout the film, culminating in Tubal-Cain’s pronouncement of Ham’s manhood during his death scene aboard the ark: “Now, you are a man.” His solitariness is distinctly couched in terms of desire for a heterosexual female mate. He finds a partner, but Noah leaves her to die rather than take her on the ark, an act so devastating for Ham that he never forgives his father for the betrayal.

Noah, then, for all its GGI effects, mysterious Watchers and character additions, can’t quite disguise that its 21st-century incarnation of the biblical hero remains closer to the Bible than any of us might have guessed.

Fidelity to the text? It’s a storm in a teacup.


World-leading scientists develop new approach to bird conservation

11 April 2014

  • Scientists produce list of the world’s 100 most unique and most endangered birds
  • New approach will help prioritise which endangered birds need particular attention

An endangered bird identified in the research

A new approach to species conservation which could change how we protect the world’s most endangered birds has been developed by a team of the world’s leading scientists, including the University of Sheffield.

World-wide, nearly 600 species of birds are currently in danger of becoming extinct. As human development pressures and environmental changes continue to threaten habitats, the need for proactive avian conservation is increasing.

This new approach to conservation, led by Walter Jetz, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, in collaboration with Dr Gavin Thomas from the University of Sheffield, relies on an idea called evolutionary distinctiveness to prioritise which endangered birds should receive particular conservation or research attention.

Evolutionary distinctiveness is a quantitative measure of genetic or evolutionarily uniqueness. Birds that evolved earlier or which do not have close living relatives – such as the Oilbird, which has almost 80 million years of evolutionary history unique to it – have a high evolutionary distinctiveness. In contrast, birds that have evolved more recently or have many common relatives have a low evolutionary distinctiveness.

Dr Gavin Thomas from the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: “Not all species are evolutionarily equal – some have few close relatives that share their DNA. These species are irreplaceable. If they are driven to extinction, millions of years or evolutionary history goes with them.”

The researchers mapped the habitats of all 9,993 species of birds and applied evolutionary distinctiveness ratings to identify areas with particularly distinct species.

The world’s top 10 most unique and endangered birds

  1. Giant Ibis
  2. New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar
  3. California Condor
  4. Kakapo
  5. Kagu
  6. Bengal Florican
  7. Forest Owlet
  8. Philippine Eagle
  9. Christmas Island Frigatebird
  10. Sumatran Ground-cuckoo

 The results identified areas where maximum conservation of the avian tree of life can be achieved with relatively small investment. Among the targeted areas for future conservation are regions of Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, and Madagascar.

Conservationists are already taking notice of the new approach.

The Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) EDGE of existence program focuses on targeted conservation of evolutionarily unique species, such as those identified in the research.

The new quantitative methods for identifying unique species at risk have provided the EDGE of existence program with a stronger framework for their fundraising and avian conservation efforts, according to the study’s lead authors, who have worked closely with ZSL over the past 5 years.

Lead author Walter Jetz added, “We find that the highly distinct and endangered species often occur far away from places that are species-rich or already otherwise on conservation’s radar. In addition to targeted conservation action thus a better monitoring of species’ changing distributions is vital.”

The international research team involved in the study are: Dr Jeffrey B. Joy and Dr Arne O. Mooers from Simon Fraser University, Canada, Dr David W. Redding from University College London, and Dr Klaas Hartmann from the University of Tasmania, Australia.

The world’s 100 most unique and endangered birds

  • Giant Ibis
  • New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar
  • California Condor
  • Kakapo
  • Kagu
  • Bengal Florican
  • Forest Owlet
  • Philippine Eagle
  • Christmas Island Frigatebird
  • Sumatran Ground-cuckoo
  • Spoon-billed Sandpiper
  • Northern Bald Ibis
  • Plains-wanderer
  • New Zealand Storm-petrel
  • Hooded Grebe
  • White-shouldered Ibis
  • Maleo
  • Black-hooded Coucal
  • Madagascar Serpent-eagle
  • Dwarf Olive Ibis
  • Rufous Scrub-bird
  • Noisy Scrub-bird
  • Junin Grebe
  • White-collared Kite
  • Congo Bay-owl

  • Australian Painted Snipe
  • Cuban Kite
  • Tooth-billed Pigeon
  • Nahan’s Francolin
  • Sulu Hornbill
  • Shoebill
  • Purple-winged Ground-dove
  • Asian Crested Ibis
  • Sangihe Shrike-thrush
  • Jerdon’s Courser
  • Lesser Florican
  • Kokako
  • Rufous-headed Hornbill
  • Masked Finfoot
  • Bahia Tapaculo
  • Waved Albatross
  • Stresemann’s Bristlefront
  • Sociable Lapwing
  • Eskimo Curlew
  • Slender-billed Curlew
  • Bannerman’s Turaco
  • Ashy Storm-petrel
  • Siberian Crane
  • White-throated Storm-petrel
  • Juan Fernandez Firecrown

  • Zapata Rail
  • Mindoro Bleeding-heart
  • Kaka
  • Negros Bleeding-heart
  • Black Stilt
  • Makira Moorhen
  • Great Indian Bustard
  • Abbott’s Booby
  • Kittlitz’s Murrelet
  • Titicaca Grebe
  • Greater Adjutant
  • Western Bristlebird
  • Eastern Bristlebird
  • Shore Plover
  • Udzungwa Forest-partridge
  • Madagascar Fish-eagle
  • White-bellied Heron
  • Subdesert Mesite
  • Long-whiskered Owlet
  • Philippine Cockatoo
  • Spix’s Macaw
  • South Island Wren
  • Crow Honeyeater
  • Northern Brown Kiwi
  • Banded Ground-cuckoo

  • Pulitzer’s Longbill
  • Alagoas Antwren
  • Pernambuco Pygmy-owl
  • Jamaica Petrel
  • Grenada Dove
  • Wood Snipe
  • Rio de Janeiro Antwren
  • White-eyed River-martin
  • Red-headed Vulture
  • Secretarybird
  • Peruvian Diving-petrel
  • Egyptian Vulture
  • St Helena Plover
  • Dark-winged Trumpeter
  • Uluguru Bush-shrike
  • Polynesian Ground-dove
  • Sichuan Jay
  • Mountain Serpent-eagle
  • Sulu Bleeding-heart
  • Flores Hawk-eagle
  • Tachira Antpitta
  • Beck’s Petrel
  • Cebu Flowerpecker
  • Blue-eyed Ground-dove
  • Javan Trogon

Additional information

The University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact: 

Sean Barton
Media Relations Assistant
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852


Our Furry Friends Now Are Shaped by Biotechnology

Originally posted on SoapBox Science, a community guest blog from

Emily Anthes is a science journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, Scientific American, Psychology Today, BBC Future, SEED, Discover, Popular Science, Slate, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.

Her book, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, is out in paperback today published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It received the 2014 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. 

Emily is also the author of the Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).

Her blog post, “When a deaf man has Tourette’s,” was selected for inclusion in The Open Laboratory 2010: The Best of Science Writing on the Web.  

Emily has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT and a bachelor’s degree in the history of science and medicine from Yale, where she also studied creative writing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her dog, Milo.

“It all started with an image of a cyborg remote controlled pigeon…” are not the everyday words of an author’s main inspiration behind their latest book, but then Emily Anthes’ ‘Frankenstein’s Cat – Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts’, is not your average creation.

When the American science journalist started her journey exploring the technological advances in the world of biotechnology, more than three years ago, she had conflicting views of her own on the reengineering of animals’ bodies. On the one hand, she was very pro-science and found the development of technologies “incredibly promising.” But on the other Anthes was also a keen animal enthusiast. “I started seeing increasingly more stories on the crazy things science could do to animals and how these new tools were reshaping animal bodies into cyborgs or using them to collect oceanographic data,” says Anthes. “The book was a way to address these conflicting feelings and attempt to figure out what these technologies really mean for animals’ lives.”

Anthes set out to define biotechnology broadly, looking at genetic engineering, prosthetic devices and wildlife tagging. But her endeavours started closest to home at her local pet store. “I thought GloFish, America’s first genetically engineered pets, were a good starting point into the world of genetic engineering. It could introduce the themes and look at the benign application of this technology”, notes the resident New Yorker. “There are often two very strong viewpoints on biotechnology – that it is either this apocalyptic force that will destroy all good, or that it’s the solution to everything. Yet there is a much more nuanced reality that we live in, that lies somewhere in between these two extremes.”

GloFish, America’s first genetically engineered pets.
Image Courtesy of Yorktown Technologies

Changing Technologies
As Anthes explores the future of biotechnology, coming across sensor-wearing seals, a bionic bulldog and the world’s first cloned cat along the way, you get a sense of how rapidly specific technologies are progressing. This is something which even Anthes admits really took her by surprise. “I was aware at the time of how much advanced work was happening in the labs, but was surprised just how quickly some of these technologies and products were becoming available to the public”, declares Anthes. “The idea that you can now buy a transgenic fish in a pet store or that there are drugs on the market that have been produced in the milk of genetically engineered animals, repeatedly astounded me.”

However, one area of technology Anthes highlights as growing incredibly fast is the match up of the biotic and the abiotic – integrating electronics into living systems, not only in animals but also in humans. One example is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)‘s funding of research to develop cyborg beetles that could potentially be used to detect explosives in enemy territories. “Essentially as our knowledge of the brain and the nervous system has improved and electronics have got smaller, lighter and more sophisticated it has become possible to hack into the nervous systems of other creatures,” says Anthes. DARPA is implanting wires into beetles’ brains attaching them to a circuit board mounted on the insects’ backs. They are also adding radio antennas which allow the creature to be remote-controlled from a distance.

“The idea is that if we can control the movement of insects through mounting surveillance equipment such as cameras, microphones and environmental sensors on their backs – we can essentially fly them into enemy territory, caves, or occupied buildings to gather information for human analysts to assess”, notes Anthes. “Scientists have come up with many other ways to use this technology now, most notably in search and rescue missions. For example, following an earthquake, you could put a temperature sensor on the back of a beetle and steer it through the rubble to detect objects that are around human body temperature. This could lead rescue teams to trapped survivors.”

Mr Green Genes. The first fluorescent cat created in the United States.
Image Courtesy of Audubon Nature Institute

Mutant Mice
One of the most surreal examples Anthes gives in the book on genetic modification lies in China, where she observes the mass production of mutant mice.  Here she describes how scientists are creating thousands upon thousands of odd animals, disabling their rodent genes, creating both visual and behavioral quirks and abnormalities.

“In recent years scientists have been developing all sorts of new technologies to control genetic modification much more precisely and generate genetically modified organisms at a much quicker rate,” says Anthes. “In Chinese laboratories they are trying to individually mutate every gene in the mouse genome creating a repository of mutant mice that has every possible gene disabled. Only after creating the mutant mice do scientists figure out what gene has been disrupted and what has gone wrong.”

Frozen Zoos
The theme of cloning plays an important role in the future debate of biotechnology and is an issue many of the scientists, conservationist and ethicists Anthes meets bring up in their encounters. Anthes talks very broadly around the subject area including the cloning of pets, livestock and how the technology is being used to preserve endangered species. It is the latter that is so powerfully brought to life in her descriptions of a “frozen zoo”, where scientists are storing DNA from the planet’s most exotic creatures.

“Using cloning to save endangered species seems so simple and straightforward. Yet it is of course not that easy, as conservationists and ecologists know that endangered species face lots of other issues, including a lack of genetic diversity, which cloning doesn’t solve”, says Anthes. Nonetheless there are many scientists who believe cloning could be an “incredible” tool for conservation. “Frozen zoos collect cells and DNA samples that almost serve as an insurance policy if a certain lineage of species dies out.  If scientists have a genome or cell from that particular lineage they can potentially thaw it out and create a clone, bringing back that genetic diversity into the population. There is no harm in at least collecting this genetic information while we have it.”

Anthes describes how one scientist compellingly argued how for some species that are extremely endangered, the sad truth may be it is too late to save them. She recalls the scientist said that if we start collecting DNA from lots of species that aren’t even endangered yet, we have a security net and those genetic resources if something were to happen in the future.

Throughout her adventure she discovered and was touched by how craft prosthetics were being used to save injured animals, but one of her most memorable moments was outside a Massachusetts cafe with a remote controlled cockroach. “I met with the founders of Backyard Brains, the company behind the RoboRoach,” brims Anthes. The RoboRoach has gained lots of attention in the media and online for its innovation, but also for what some critics argued its ignorance towards ethics. “It was incredibly surreal to be controlling the movements of a cockroach on a sidewalk.”

For the freelance journalist and author there was also a serious side to all the fun and ultimately surreal moments. One of her primary aims was to raise stimulating debate on the uses of biotechnology on animals looking at both the risks and the benefits. Anthes concludes there are no easy solutions, but the most sensible way forward is to assess each product and application on its own – weighing up the different factors – such as what’s in the best interests of humans, animals and environments.

“It is important to not just think of the argument as humans vs animals as there are more complicated calculations, such as the interests of one animal versus the interests of an entire species. One example could be in wildlife tracking and tagging where it may not be comfortable for an elephant seal to be tagged as it could cause irritation or abrasions. Yet, on the other hand, that data from the device could potentially be used to help protect the entire population of elephant seals. We should look at both the risks of using this technology and the dangers if we don’t.”

The RoboRoach
Image Courtesy of Emily Anthes

Wider Debate
It is a fascinating debate, which following the book’s release in hardback a year ago, has sparked much interest. Through doing readings and talks across US cities, Anthes has been taken aback by the amount of engaged questions and excitement around the subject matter. “The response has been really exciting and it has prompted wide discussion on many of the issues raised in the book, says Anthes. “I never set out for people to agree with my views.  The book is prompting a larger discussion and to that end I’ve been amazed by how many engaged questions I’ve had from audience members. I’ve been part of some really inspiring discussions with lots of people trying to make sense of all these technologies and figure out a way forward.”

And that leads us back to where it all started, at the cyborg pigeon. This may well be an image that no longer shocks or surprises us as a society, but still reflects the enormous leap in technological advances over recent years. “It was really rewarding to put together all these disparate pieces and headlines and dive incredibly deeply into all the nuances that are often overlooked or put to one side. There is so much potential in the future, we just need to be open minded,” concludes Anthes.

‘Frankenstein’s Cat – Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts’ is out in paperback today. For further details and other titles published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, visit here.

The winner of the 2014 Advancing Science, Serving Society/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books for Young Adults.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Nature SoapBox Science blog. The article was first published on April 8, 2014.

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Mini ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ Took Down Large Prey

An extinct marsupial hunter only the size of a fox may have hunted prey larger than itself, researchers say.

This predatory ability makes the ancient creature different from its most recent living relative, the also-extinct thylacine, or “Tasmanian tiger.” The last known wild thylacine was shot in 1930, and the last captive member of the species died in a zoo in 1936.

Hunting apparently helped drive the species to extinction. People targeted the dog-like Tasmanian tigers because they believed that the animals killed sheep; in fact, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Zoology found that the creatures’ jaws were too weak to take down large prey, and that they would have only killed animals smaller than themselves.

The new study analyzed an exceptionally well-preserved whole skeleton of an extinct relative of these last thylacines, known as Nimbacinus dicksoni; the specimen dates to about 11.6 million to 16 million years old.

“The discovery of an entire skeleton of Nimbacinus was a truly amazing finding, particularly as it is was in such good condition,” said study author Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and paleontologist at the University of New England in Australia.

Tiny lions and carnivorous kangaroos

The marsupial carnivore was about the size of a very large housecat or a small fox, weighing about 11 pounds (5 kilograms). “Its face looked like a cross between a cat and an opossum,” said study lead author Marie Attard, a zoologist at the University of New England in Australia. [Marsupial Gallery: A Pouchful of Cute]

The modern thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)was larger, comparable in size to a medium-sized or large dog. Modern thylacines weighed in at between 40 and 70 lbs. (20 to 30 kg).

Paleontologists discovered the fossil in the mid-1990s in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Australia. In ancient times, warm, humid, lowland rainforests covered this region — then, about 10 million to 15 million years ago, it became progressively cooler and drier, transforming into dry open woodlands and grasslands.

Nimbacinus belonged to an extinct family of marsupial carnivores known as the thylacinids, consisting of at least 12 known species. Nimbacinus may have lived in ancient Riversleigh with several other thylacinid species, along with marsupial lions smaller than a housecat and small carnivorous kangaroos, potentially competing with them all for prey.

“As a medium-sized carnivore, Nimbacinus was likely hunted by larger meat-eaters, including snakes, ground-dwelling crocodiles and larger species of marsupial lions,” Wroe told Live Science.

Aside from studies of the recently extinct thylacine, most knowledge about thylacinids comes from skull fragments, limiting what scientists could deduce about the animals. The newly unearthed Nimbacinus skull, however, helped Attard and her colleagues reconstruct how this creature may have lived.

Modeling a marsupial

The researchers created a 3D computer model of the Nimbacinus skull to realistically simulate how the skull may have behaved. Digitally reconstructing the whole skull posed a challenge, as the top of its cranium had been slightly crushed and only half of its lower jaw, or mandible, was intact. “It was like opening a jigsaw puzzle box, only to find crucial missing pieces,” Attard told Live Science.

The scientists then compared the mechanical performance of the Nimbacinus skull with that of the extinct thylacine. They also compared its performance to that of living marsupial carnivores such as the Tasmanian devil, spotted-tailed quoll and northern quoll. These belong to a different and diverse family of marsupial carnivores, the dasyurids.

In a surprise, the researchers discovered the mechanical performance of the Nimbacinus skull was far more similar to the spotted-tailed quoll, a member of a different family of marsupial carnivores, than to the Nimbacinus’ closer relative, the thylacine.

These findings suggest Nimbacinus had a powerful bite for its size, was mostly carnivorous and was probably capable of hunting prey larger than itself.

“Our biomechanical analysis of the skull of Nimbacinusrevealed that it was likely an opportunistic hunter of the rainforest and had a broadly similar way of life to that of larger living dasyurids such as the spotted-tailed quoll,” Attard said. “It likely preyed upon small- to medium-sized birds, frogs, lizards and snakes, as well as a wide range of marsupials, including possums, bandicoots, dasyurids, ancient ancestors of koalas, small wallabies, thingodontans [extinct marsupials with boomerang-shaped molars], marsupial moles and wombats. This suggests possible convergent evolution between Nimbacinus and the spotted-tailed quoll, meaning that these two species independently evolved similar adaptations to similar environments.” [6 Extinct Animals That Could Come Back]

In contrast, the recently extinct Tasmanian tiger was considerably more specialized in what it could eat than Nimbacinus and large living dasyurids. This likely made the Tasmanian tiger more restricted in the range of prey it could hunt, “and more vulnerable to extinction,” Attard said.

Reconstructing past communities and the ecologies of the species that contribute to them “is pivotal if we are to map out and understand change over time,” Wroe told Live Science in an email. “Trying to understand how these animals lived and what they ate is also fun!”

Future analysis of the Nimbacinus skeleton could reveal if it was partially tree dwelling like the spotted-tailed quoll, which could help explain the similarities the researchers have noted so far between the two marsupial species.

The scientists detailed their findings online April 9 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Gardening Tips

Ground breaking #weareinternational campaign attracts 100th supporter

10 April 2014

A ground breaking campaign led by the University of Sheffield to highlight the crucial value of international students to the UK has now been backed by 100 universities, education institutions and international organisations.

The pioneering #weareinternational campaign, which was jointly founded by the University of Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor and the Students’ Union President, is proving to be more vital than ever as the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) this week (Wednesday 2 April 2014) announced international student applications to the UK have fallen for the first time in 30 years.

Falmouth University is the 100th institute to support the collaborative project which aims to support talented international students as they apply to study in the UK. Falmouth joins other leading universities from the four corners of the UK including the University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, University of St Andrews and Queen’s University Belfast.

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Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, said: “We have been delighted to have received support from right across the Higher Education sector, from world-renowned institutions such as the University of Cambridge and London School of Economics to more specialist institutions such as the Royal Veterinary College and the Royal College of Music. The campaign is also UK wide with support from universities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

As well as UK universities the #weareinternational campaign, which received cross-party support at Parliament, was developed in partnership the British Council and the UK Council for International Students and has built links with the Home Office and Cabinet Office to reinforce the message that the UK actively welcomes talented students.

“This is a campaign which our students and staff feel is vitally important and it would be tragic if this were lost within the wider debate around immigration,” said Professor Sir Keith Burnett.

“Simply put, our University believes that international students are not and should not be thought of as migrants. These students are vital to the quality of education in the UK, to our research, to our communities. They are innovators and friends.”

As part of the campaign, the University of Sheffield has produced innovative materials which are being used by partner institutions to inform prospective students about the student visa application process to study in the UK, including two short student-focused films in both India and China.

The China film was recently launched at an event in the Houses of Parliament which was hosted by Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield and attended by the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire MP and the Minister Counsellor for Education Yang Shen from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China.

University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union International Officer, Alex Kohnert , is a passionate advocate for international students and spoke at the Houses of Parliament.

He said: “This campaign is vitally important. Why do we think international students are important to the UK? On a purely economic level, the numbers are staggering. As a ball-park figure, Universities UK say that international students bring in £8 billion per year.

“Yet when international students come to this great country to study, we build friendships with people from all over the world. We are literally changing lives. The transformational power of education is without parallel. When you bring students to new places to learn, to study, to grow as people – you change the direction of their future. And when they go back to their country, you change the direction of countries. ”

To demonstrate strong links of friendship across national boundaries and between home and overseas students, University of Sheffield students also launched a #standbyme selfie campaign in which images of students, staff and alumni are accompanied by stories of international friendship – the campaign is now spreading across other campuses in the UK.

The #weareinternational campaign is also supported by the Confederation of British Industry and the UK India Business Council, and is endorsed by the GREAT campaign.

For more information about the campaign please visit

Additional information

• A report from HEFCE published on 2 April 2014 revealed that the number of international students studying on UK higher education institutions has fallen for the first time in 30 years
• According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the UK welcomes over 400,000 international students annually. Overseas students make up 14 per cent of full-time first degree students and 46 per cent of all taught postgraduates.
• A report commissioned for the Department of Business, Industry and Skills estimates that the total value of UK education and training exports to the UK economy is £14 billion, with a projection that this could rise as high as £26 billion by 2025. Estimating the value to the UK of Education Exports –
• International students also make a huge contribution to the economic prosperity of city regions across the UK. An independent study of the net economic contribution of international students carried out by Oxford Economics for the University of Sheffield concluded international students provided £120 million to the city region annually, equivalent to 10 per cent of inward investment –!/file/sheffield-international-students-report.pdf

Stand By Me
The University of Sheffield is encouraging students, staff and alumni at institutions across the world to join in the campaign by uploading their own selfie with an international friend.
Selfies should be sent to and can be posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #standbyme.

For more information visit

University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.
For further information, please visit


For further information please contact:

Amy Pullan
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859


London Eye designer shares secrets at opening of world-class University facility

10 April 2014

  • £21 million revolutionary building offering state-of-the-art facilities to be officially opened
  • Graduates to attend whose work has had a major impact on the world of engineering
  • Building named after Pam Liversidge, the first female President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineering
  • Explore the facilities available inside the new building using Google Streetview

University of Sheffield engineering graduate Dr John Roberts – the designer of the London Eye, one of the most iconic visitor attractions in the world, as well as white knuckle roller coaster rides such as the Pepsi Max Big One – will be sharing his design secrets when he speaks at the official opening of the University’s new Pam Liversidge Building on Monday (14 April 2014).

The £21 million Pam Liversidge Building on the corner of Newcastle Street and Broad Lane, named in recognition of the achievements of one of the UK’s leading female engineers and industrial entrepreneurs, was completed earlier this year. It houses two lecture theatres, several flexible teaching and study spaces with drop-in IT facilities, many engineering postgraduate students and Insigneo, Scentro and CISTIB, three of the University’s joint research ventures.

The building also includes a stunning atrium that has been named ‘The Honourable Sir S.Y. Chung Atrium’ in recognition of the graduate’s generous contribution of one million US dollars to the Faculty of Engineering. Now aged 96, the distinguished Hong Kong business man and politician came to the University of Sheffield on a British Council scholarship in 1948, completing his PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 1951. Although he is unable to attend the opening event in person, Sir S.Y. Chung will be represented by his son Gilbert Chung, accompanied by his wife Carol and their two sons.

Miles Stevenson, Director of Alumni and Donor Relations at the University of Sheffield, said that Sir S.Y. Chung had been unstinting in his support for the institution.

“It’s brilliant to be able to create a permanent and visible thank you to Sir S. Y. Chung who has made this significant donation in gratitude for the education he received here more than 60 years ago,” he said.

Professor Mike Hounslow, Pam Liversidge and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Faculty Director of Women in EngineeringProfessor Mike Hounslow, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engineering, said that he was looking forward to welcoming guests to the event and hearing from Dr Roberts about his design and construction work in creating some amazing landmarks.

“We’re always delighted to welcome back our graduates, many of whom are making a major impact on the world of engineering and it will be fascinating to hear from John about his career in engineering and the challenges and rewards of being involved in such exciting, high profile projects.

“We’re also enormously grateful to Pam Liversidge for her involvement in this building and the support she has always shown to the Faculty of Engineering and the University of Sheffield, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to mark that contribution by naming the building in her honour. And of course, we also owe a huge thank you to Sir S.Y.Chung for his continued support for the Faculty and his very generous donation which has helped to make this building a reality.

“This is an extremely important event for the Faculty, and the wider University, marking the official opening of this vital new building, which is helping us to take our research activities to a new level at the same time as providing a first class teaching and research environment for our postgraduate students.”

Gary Hughes, Regional Director at GRAHAM Construction, said: “At GRAHAM we strongly believe in collaboration and working in partnership with our clients and this has been key to the success of this project. The University of Sheffield is a historic and prestigious institution and we are very proud it recognised our quality, and trusted in our vision and ability to deliver.”

Additional information

With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further informatuion please contact:

Shemina Davis
Media Relations Manager
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 5339


Sloth Squeak!

Lucy Cooke, the mastermind behind Slothville, a recognized National Geographic Explorer and award winning videographer and TV producer, has a new book, The Power of Sloth, coming out in the UK today. To celebrate, she made a quick video compilation of sloths squeaking.

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My heart has broken from the cuteness!

In case you missed Lucy talk about her US version of her sloth book on Read Science!, well, here she is! Did you know she was a student of none other than Richard Dawkins? You’ll hear about that AND learn about the time she quite excitedly met Sir David Attenborough!

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And for good measure, have a cute bunch of sloths hung out to dry. Literally.

Gardening Tips

Bacteria Turn Plants and Insects into Zombies

A parasitic phytoplasma deploys proteins to manipulate the plants it infects as well as the insects that spread the microbe

Apr 9, 2014
|By Ed Yong and Nature magazine


Many parasites commandeer the bodies of their hosts in order to spread. Examples of this include horsehair worms that reach water by forcing their cricket hosts to drown themselves, and liver flukes that drive infected ants to climb blades of grass, where cows can eat the insects, and so the flukes.

But parasites can turn plants into zombies, too — and a team of scientists from the John Innes Center in Norwich, UK, has now discovered how they do it.

When plants are infected by parasitic bacteria called phytoplasmas, their flowers turn into leafy shoots, their petals turn green and they develop a mass of shoots called ‘witches’ brooms’. This transformation sterilizes the plant, while attracting the sap-sucking insects that carry the bacteria to new hosts.

“The plant appears alive, but it’s only there for the good of the pathogen,” says plant pathologist Saskia Hogenhout from the John Innes Center in Norwich, UK. “In an evolutionary sense, the plant is dead and will not produce offspring.”

“Many might baulk at the concept of a zombie plant because the idea of plants behaving is strange,” says David Hughes, a parasitologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. “But they do, and since they do, why wouldn’t parasites have evolved to take over their behavior, as they do for ants and crickets?”

Dual control
Hogenhout’s team had previously shown that the bacteria manipulate their hosts by means of a single protein called SAP54. It interacts with the plant protein RAD23, which sends molecules destined for destruction to the cell’s waste-disposal center — the proteasome. In this case, the targeted molecules are those that make flowers.  The findings are published today in PLoS Biology.

The same interaction between SAP54 and these plant proteins increased the plants’ attraction for the leafhoppers that transmit phytoplasmas. The team found that leafhoppers lay more eggs on infected plants that had leaf-like flowers than on those with normal blooms. They also showed that even SAP54 alone, in the absence of the bacteria, could attract the insects.

“The beauty of the paper is that the bacteria control both plant and insect at the same time with the same protein,” said Hughes. “That’s stunning.”

Hogenhout says that this discovery reveals a connection between a plant’s developmental program and its immune system — one that no one had suspected and that probably holds in many other species. She hopes that studying this connection will lead to new ways of simultaneously improving crop production and boosting resistance to pests.

She also wants to work out how other pathogens create zombie plants. The rust fungus Puccinia monoica, for example, sterilizes its hosts and transforms their leaves into bright yellow ‘pseudoflowers’. These fake flowers are loaded with fungal cells, and attract insect pollinators that spread the cells to uninfected hosts. No one knows how it reprograms the host, says Hogenhout. “It would be so cool to find out.”

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on April 8, 2014.

Gardening Tips

New research puts conventional theories about Titanic disaster on ice

9 April 2014

  • Titanic not unlucky for sailing in a year with an exceptional number of icebergs, study finds
  • Risk of icebergs higher now than in 1912 – the year of the world’s most famous maritime disaster

Academics at the University of Sheffield have dispelled a long-held theory that the Titanic was unlucky for sailing in a year with an exceptional number of icebergs and say the risk of icebergs is actually higher now.

Icebergs in Greenland

Previously it had been suggested that the seas which sank the famous cruise ship – which set off on its maiden voyage 102 years ago today (Thursday 10 April 2014) – had an exceptional number of icebergs caused by lunar or solar effects.

But academics at the University have shown the ship wasn’t as unlucky as previously thought.

Using data on iceberg locations dating back to 1913 – recorded to help prevent a repeat of the Titanic – they have shown that 1912 was a significant ice year but not extreme.

Professor Grant Bigg who led the research, said: “We have seen that 1912 was a year of raised iceberg hazard, but not exceptionally so in the long term. 1909 recorded a slightly higher number of icebergs and more recently the risk has been much greater – between 1991 and 2000 eight of the ten years recorded more than 700 icebergs and five exceeded the 1912 total.”

He added: “As use of the Arctic, in particular, increases in the future with the declining sea-ice the ice hazard will increase in water not previously used for shipping. As polar ice sheets are increasingly losing mass as well, the iceberg risk is likely to increase in the future, rather than decline.”

The iceberg which sank the Titanic was spotted just before midnight on 14 April 1912 500m away. Despite quick action to slow the ship it wasn’t enough and the ship sank in just two and a half hours. The disaster saw 1,517 people perish and only 700 survive.

Funding for the research, published in the journal Weather, was provided by the National Environment Research Council (NERC).

Additional information:

The University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 of the brightest students from 117 countries coming to learn alongside 1,209 of the world’s best academics, it is clear why the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading universities. Staff and students at Sheffield are committed to helping discover and understand the causes of things – and propose solutions that have the power to transform the world we live in.

A member of the Russell Group, the University of Sheffield has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, 2007), recognising the outstanding contribution by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

One of the markers of a leading university is the quality of its alumni and Sheffield boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students. Its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, Siemens, Yorkshire Water, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. The White Rose University Consortium (White Rose) is a strategic partnership between 3 of the UK’s leading research universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Since its creation in 1997 White Rose has secured more than £100M into the Universities.

For further information, please visit


For further information please contact:

Hannah Postles
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046