Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. What happened after IKEA asked you many personal questions

    Sometimes you’re faced with a spread sheet of data and other times you have to read a 50-page report to understand what data the data means. Often there is a story hiding between the numbers that you have to work very hard to figure out.

    At other times data is presented in a format that really enhances that story. Ikea has complied its ‘Like at home’ report that for the first time surveyes the morning rituals in 8 cities around the world: Berlin, London, Moscow, Mumbai, New York, Paris, Shanghai, and Stockholm.

    In addition to being a compelling way of presenting data, the report also reveals some differences in morning rituals between the different cities. For instance, who knew that people in Stockholm snooze the most, that people in Mumbai and Shanghai wake up more quickly than in the other nations and that Moscow has the highest number of coffee or tea drinkers in the morning.

  2. How to make better decisions? Get to know your future self

    How do you change what people do and how they behave? More importantly, how can you persuade people to make decisions that will serve them better in the future?

    One theory is explored in the article Why we procrastinate published in the online version of Nautilus.

    In the article, assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Hal Hershfield explains that: “It’s kind of a weird notion,”…”On a psychological and emotional level, we really consider that future self as if it’s another person.”

    It also hypothesises that: …procrastination or irresponsibility can derive from a poor connection to your future self, strengthening this connection may prove to be an effective remedy.

    And sure, psychologist Anne Wilson at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada confirms that: “Using a longer timeline makes people feel more connected to their future selves.”

    To test this theory, watch the following video and see if you would do anything differently for your future self.

  3. Is big data useless just because it disrupts scientific tradition?


    I was once in a room of scientists discussing big data.The discussion went something like this:

    Big data is too big. How would you know what to look for? In traditional scientific investigation, you have one hypothesis and gather data to either prove or disprove that one hypothesis. Everything else you conclude and think you might see in the data are only your suspicions. To know for sure you need to conduct a whole new experiment focusing on each individual suspicion.

    Big data is not very precise. One of the most important measures used to validate traditional scientific data is statistical significance, which is an indicator of whether or not your result is likely to be a real effect or just be a coincidence.

    Then the discussion moved on to how Google had ambitiously tried to predict flu epidemics by tracking searches made by the public and failed.

    And at that moment, when big data had almost been written off as the latest trend that would never add value to anyone ever, I realised that we were all wrong. That just because we could not apply our traditional measures of what is accurate data on large volumes of data does not make it useless.

    Today, big data does play an important part in tracking epidemics and plays an important part in tracking Ebola right now. In fact, it seems like the HealthMap algorithm that mines the social web for mentions of Ebola managed to detect the epidemic nine days before the World Health Organization.

    So, it is quite harsh to deem an entire science useless just because it gets predictions wrong, try telling Francis Galton, English scientist born in 1822, who constructed the world’s first weather map.

  4. Preaching To The Choir Or Converting The Unbelievers


    I have never had a science teacher that made me fascinated by science. I do not come from a family of scientists. I actually spent the first 18 years of my life trying to avoid science.

    When I was 16, I chose to study languages. I mainly did it because English was ‘easy’. I knew I’d get away with a good grade. I thought that, unlike science, languages are really simple. They are all about rules. Just learn the rules of how to conjugate verbs in French, learn the exceptions by heart and fluency will be within reach. An added bonus was that at beginner’s level just showing effort would lead to a good grade.

    Then at some point, I had to do some basic science classes. I was extremely unexcited at the prospect and probably skimmed through a French glossary in class. Then we got a handout on which we had to answer questions about the bases that make up DNA. My friend and I flicked through the biology book in search of complex answers.

    We were surprised to find that there are only four bases in DNA and they bind to each other in pairs and are most commonly known by their one-letter names: AT and CG. We had to ask our teacher if there were any exceptions that we could learn by heart. There were none. That was it. Our teacher prompted us to move on to the next question. We had never been so productive. No dictionaries, discussion of what was the most appropriate verb and not even Babel fish.

    A few years later, while studying biology at university, I was on the floor of my student accommodation drawing a visual representation of how DNA is duplicated. I was studying for my next exam, but most importantly I was having fun. In all honesty, it wasn’t that difficult. I wondered why I had been so reluctant all my life, why I had thought science was so hard.

    I vowed that I would do all in my power to make other people find science as interesting as I did. And I today I believe that the best way to do this is to approach the topic in new ways and make it easy to understand.

    There are others that also try to make scientific concepts easy to understand. In specific, a group of scientists based at the Blizard Institute in Whitechapel researching Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at Queen Mary University of London. They have developed an innovative take on how to explain MS to children who might have a parent suffering from the condition.

    To me, the mission of converting the science unbelievers is an important one. Hopefully, by attempting it, at least one youngster out there will dare to get excited about science and not run a mile whenever it is mentioned.

  5. The Power Of A Fingerprint


    The sci-fi dream of instant identification through fingerprint scanning has finally arrived as mainstream technology that many of us will interact with every day. Apart from granting access to the Aladdin’s cave that our mobile phones currently are, researchers have obsessively looked into the possibility of diagnosing disease from fingerprint patterns. It may seem farfetched, but statistics show that maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

    We have much still to learn about our unique fingerprints. Exactly how they form is unknown. One theory is that we somehow inherit the patterns from our parents. To add complexity, the prints must also be maintained throughout life, since they don’t fade away with time. Some theories claim that fingerprints are very useful and could have evolved to improve gripping of objects and sensation of different surfaces.

    Fingerprint identification entered the realm of science in the later half of the 1800s. Back then, the focus was on forensics and new ways to catch criminals. In 1864 Professor Paul-Jean Coulier published his newfound technique making it possible to see and identify left over or accidental fingerprints at crime scenes. Since researchers started studying prints, a lot of faith has been put in the information they hold.

    In the past few decades, researchers have looked at fingerprints taken from people diagnosed with certain diseases and tried to find common characteristics in the prints. The idea could make it possible to diagnose other people by just looking for the same patterns in their fingerprints. So far, statistics show that a connection can be made between certain pattern characteristics and a large number of diseases, including arthritis, asthma, breast cancer, and schizophrenia.

    So, if your phone one day will be able to diagnose you is hard to fully predict, but we sure seem to think that our fingerprints can unlock more secrets than the ones we have stored in our phones.

  6. What Is the Ugliest Animal In the World, You Wonder...

    So the internet is all about watching cuddly kittens falling into toilets and puppies riding robot vacuum cleaners, right?! Well not anymore.

    The Ugly Animal Preservation Society teamed up with the National Science + Engineering Competition and asked the public to vote for the ugliest animal in the world to be the society’s mascot.

    And the result was announced today: Out of the 11 candidates the Blobfish was victorious as the ugliest animal.

    Personally, I think I would have voted for the Proboscis monkey or the…eh…Titicaca scrotum fog.

  7. The Science of Sexual Preference


    As the 15th country in the world, the UK (or at least England and Wales) are closer than ever to allow and recognise same-sex-marriage (follow the status of the bill here).

    It might be in relation to this that the Science Museum in London chose to dedicate this month’s ‘Lates’ session, held on the last Wednesday of each month, to exploring sexuality and sexual preference. Yesterday seemed jam packed with activities and lectures to discuss the role of a plastic surgeon in the a transgender person’s life, the sexual behaviour of bugs and to explain the Science of Sex.

    By coincidence, Chinese researchers who have tackled that last topic in the lab released their results yesterday. They claim to have been able to change the sexual preference in mice and thereby discovered the chemical in the brain that makes some people prefer men and others prefer women. Their results showed that by completely removing the neurotransmitter serotonin (known to be involved in different behaviours like mood, appetite and sleep), male mice became willing to mount both male and female mice. When serotonin was injected into these male mice they reverted to mainly mounting females. Therefore, serotonin levels could be involved in sexual preference.

    Since these results were released that conclusion has been heavily criticised. First of all, that serotonin is involved in sexual behaviour is not a new discovery. In fact, one of the side effects of certain antidepressants is a lower sex drive just because the levels of serotonin increase. And if high serotonin levels reduce the sex drive in people, it is not surprising to find that low levels of serotonin increase the sex drive in mice.
    Secondly, the observation that the male mice with a high sex drive are less concerned with the gender of their partners does not necessarily say anything about their sexual preference. Perhaps, they just mount pretty much anything.

    Lastly, as mention before serotonin is involved in many behavioural processes. At present, these observations do not provide enough of a basis to make any big claims about sexual preference. And in addition, since many people are taking antidepressants that do have an effect on sexual behaviour, I suspect that we would have noticed if ‘may change sexual preference’ was one of the additional side effects.

    The whole thing reminds me of that ancient saying: “Beware of confusing ‘preference for sex’ with ‘preference for a particular gender’ and vice versa”

  8. You Are What You Listen To


    We listen to a lot of music. That is true today more than any other time. I am myself a self-proclaimed music junkie. In research, there has been a long search for a link between music preference and behaviour.

    About a month ago, a study found that college students listening to metal music suffered depression and anxiety to a higher degree than their peers that preferred pop or ‘chart music’.

    This association has been made before: In a study from 2001, Adolescents preferring heavy metal music were more likely to drink alcohol and take illegal drugs. They were also described as more likely to ‘worship music in a more prominent way’ (probably means more passionate about their genre than ‘chart listeners’) and to use music to deal with aggressive emotions.

    Only the teenage girls listening to heavy metal seemed to deal with more feelings of alienation and even showed a suicide risk than same-sex peers. The conclusion is that the heavy metal genre probably is more accepted amongst boys and more alienating amongst girls. (Any female heavy metal fans that want to share their thoughts on that?) Personally, I suspect that listening to music that deals with aggression or feelings of alienation might be a cultural aspect of the genre, rather than actual feelings that individual listeners experience.

    Most research looking at this relationship finds many negative effects associated with listening to heavy metal music, but takes us nowhere closer to understanding if young people with a certain mindset choose specific types of music or is it the music that brings certain behaviours out of them.

    I wonder if it matters? We have all been there. Being a teenager was hard. Your days revolved around fitting in. You did what your friends did. My hunch is that what group you belong to as a teenager is more or less arbitrary – the importance lies in belonging to any group. It is your first attempt at testing the waters and gaining your very first life experience. Of course, you have to start somewhere.

    Maybe the recent Canadian evidence that music you like activates old reward systems in the brain sheds some light on the issue.

    The music we enjoy makes us feel good.
    Maybe that is all that matters?