The 80-20 rule of scientific data loss

The Pareto principle, or more commonly known as the 80-20 rule, is quiet useful. It states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It can be applied to all sorts of scenarios—80% of profits of a company come from 20% of its customers, 80% of sales come from 20% of the sales staff, and, also beyond business, 80% of healthcare resources are used by 20% of the patients.

There may now be a sort of 80-20 rule for scientific data loss, if this study in Current Biology can be replicated across different areas of science. In the study, the authors looked at 516 ecology papers between 1991 and 2011. They found that as the studies got older their failure rate of acquiring its raw data increased. In the end, nearly 80% of scientific raw data seems to have been lost after 20 years of a study being published.

Credit: Nature
Credit: Nature

We must remember, however, that this is the same period which saw the highest uptake of digital technologies by the scientific community. So it may mean that the 80-20 rule of scientific data loss may just apply to this period, or some period before and after it.

With better technology, more collaboration and cheaper storage, journals and scientists are both getting better at having access to data. While most data becomes useless after a while because of the nature of research, trying to keep all raw data accessible will mean that key data gets preserved.

TLDR: Sunstones may not have been a myth

The Vikings were fabled to have owned a crystal that helped them navigate the seas. This was, of course, before magnetic compasses were invented. Few believed the tale. Now researchers in France seemed to have dug up a stone (pictured) which they believe was a sunstone.

The stone is a crystal of Iceland spar, a form of calcite that detects polarised light. Sunlight is polarised (that is its electromagnetic waves can travel in a particular orientation), which when passed through the sunstone could reveal the direction from which it came. Even if there was thick cloud cover, sunstones were able to reveal sun’s direction, making the Vikings’ lives easier.

PS: The stone pictured is not transparent because it has aged.

Reference: Le Floch et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society (2013)

Further reading: The Economist

TLDR: Two incredible things about bees and flowers

First: Bees can sense which flowers are “open for business” based on their electric fields. Although animals have been known to be able to detect electric fields, this is a first for an insect.

The way this works is that when a bee flies through it bumps into charged dust particles in the air, which cause it to be stripped of electrons thus gaining positive charge. Flowers on the other hand have negative charge.

This charge difference, however small, not only makes pollens jump from the flower to the bee, but it also helps the bee figure out which flower it should visit. The higher the voltage difference between the flower and the bee, the more the chances that the bee will find nectar in the flower

Second: Flowers attract bees by giving them a dose of caffeine.

Just like in humans, caffeine stimulates the bees. But what’s more is that researchers found caffeine also helps bees long-term memory retention. Thus the nectar of flowers that is laced with caffeine is remembered better by the bee.

It’s a win-win for both. Bees get more nectar and the flower gets to spread more of its pollens.

Bees + electric field: Clarke et al. Science (2013)
Bees + caffeine: Wright et al. Science (2013)

Further reading:
Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science
Kate Shaw in Ars Technica

Image credit: Ars Technica

TLDR: Why is it that our brains are all wrinkly?

Some mammals have smooth brains (rat), while others have a lot of folds (dolphins). Higher folds lead to greater surface area and denser connections between neurons, which in turn help increase the brain’s computing speed and allow for specialisation of certain regions.

The obvious question then, and one that Robert Toro asks in a new paper is: Are these folds encoded in our genes or is it because larger brains have to fold up to be accommodated in a smaller space?

Toro finds that it has little to do with genes and mostly to do with brain size. This observation explains it succinctly: The back part of our brain which develops earlier has greater space to grow in and thus has fewer folds compared to the front of our brains (ie the neocortex).

The growth of the human brain is the most important thing that happened in our evolution. Understanding how it happened is just as important as having a large, wrinkly brain to wield.

Reference: Roberto Toro, Evol. Bio. 2013, 600.

Further reading: Carl Zimmer on the Loom (

Image credit: Roberto Toro

TLDR: Submerged continent found in the Indian ocean

The island M stands for Mauritius

Scientists have discovered a submerged continent in the Indian ocean, between Madagascar and India. According to sediments found on the coast of Mauritius, at some point during the last 2 billion and 600 million years ago, there was an archipelago that separated from Madagascar and the Indian sub-continent. They then got submerged during the tectonic plate movements that resulted in the way land masses exist today.

Reference:  Torsvik, T. H. et al. Nature Geosci. 2013, 223.

Further reading: Sid Perkins in Nature News

Image credit: Nature Geoscience (Supplementary information)

Update: A reader pointed out that perhaps this was the origin of the legends of Lemuria. Although that is not accurate, the Wikipedia article on Lemuria is worth a read.