Sneaky Dogs, a Cool Conference and More

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By age 14, Emily Dickinson had assembled a prodigious herbarium, a well-labeled collection of pressed flowers and plants. At the time, this was a voguish hobby. "Most all the girls are making one," she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1845.

That delightful tidbit, dispensed in a presentation at the big annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston last week, was one of myriad tantalizing facts, discoveries and revelations at the exhaustive five-day event.

The theme of the conference was the "beauty and benefits of science" -- which sounds like a cosmetics commercial, until you sit in on a session like "The Herbarium as Muse" and hear Maura C. Flannery, a biology professor at St. John's University in New York, describe the inspiration artists have gleaned from botanical cuttings and the utility of these collections today. "Herbaria are becoming more valuable because their specimens are often old enough to aid in documenting climate change and environmental degradation," she said. In other words: art, beauty and science meld and benefit us all. A nice thought.

Developments

Life Sciences

A Windfall for 11

Speakers at the A.A.A.S. conference talked up the importance of financial support for basic research, and last week the private sector stepped up in a splashy way: four Internet entrepreneurs awarded $3 million each to 11 researchers in medicine and biology. As The New York Times reported, the awards -- each more than double the purse of a Nobel Prize -- went for work in such fields as genetics, stem cells and cancer. Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist, set up the new prizes along with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sergey Brin of Google and Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe (who is married to Mr. Brin). Mr. Milner had already delivered a pleasant shock to the physics world by doling out equivalent prizes to outstanding physicists last year.

Medicine

A Big List of Don'ts

For people who think that doctors may be a bit too quick to order up another test, some validation: the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation came forward with a list of 90 tests and treatments that it called overused or unnecessary. Some of the procedures are common ones prescribed for big groups of patients. For instance, the doctors said that women ages 30 to 65 who aren't at high risk for cervical cancer don't need an annual Pap test, and that people who have sore throats, bronchitis and other common respiratory problems shouldn't be given antibiotics.

Space

Another Day, Another Planet

"This new discovery raises the specter that the universe is jampacked, like jelly beans in a jar, with planets even smaller than Earth," the astronomer Geoff Marcy, an éminence grise of planet hunting, told The Associated Press at the news that NASA's Kepler telescope had spied the tiniest planet ever found outside our solar system. About the same size as our Moon -- roughly one-third the size of Earth -- Kepler-37b has no water, no atmosphere and a surface temperature of more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit, but it was the wee size of the planet that got astronomers excited, as it stretched the imagination about what's out there. Thomas Barclay of the NASA Ames Research Center in Northern California gets credit for the discovery.

Animal Behavior

Those Sneaky Dogs

Take 84 dogs. Put each one in a room with food on the floor and instruct the dog to leave it alone. Try it in a dark room and a nicely lit room. What will happen? According to a study in the journal Animal Cognition, "the dogs were four times as likely to steal the food -- and steal it more quickly -- when the room was dark," National Geographic reported. The study leader, Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth in England, explained how this shows us that dogs know a thing or two. "It implies dogs understand the human can't see them, meaning they might understand the human perspective," she said in a news release.

Health

Something Good About Fat

Last week brought some rare bits of encouragement in America's long struggle with obesity: children ate fewer calories in 2010 than they did a decade earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, and the adult obesity rate plateaued after years of increases, with adults consuming fewer of their calories in fast food. Still, the differences were too small to get federal researchers excited. In The Times, an author of the report, R. Bethene Erving, characterized the findings as "a harbinger of change," adding that, "to see if it's really a real trend we would obviously need more years of data."

Coming up

Big Ideas

A Confederacy of Coolness

Are you going to the big TED conference this week? No, I'm not either, but there should be a lot of interesting stuff coming out of it on Twitter and elsewhere. TED stands for technology, entertainment, design (not that you needed to ask) and, according to the TED Web site, "attendance at TED is by application, and the attendees -- C.E.O.'s, scientists, designers, intellectuals -- are as extraordinary as the speakers." At TED2013, in Long Beach, Calif., from Feb. 25 through March 1, the speakers include roboticists, a nuclear scientist, a computer theorist and a beatboxer called Beardyman.

science

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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