Underground lake on Mars turns out to be ‘thousand layer cake’

Ice cap at the South Pole of Mars, underneath which a lake of fluid water was thought to be found. | Photo ESA

In the summer of 2018, researchers reported that they had found a large underground lake of liquid water using the radar of the Mars Express satellite, which orbits this planet. In the search for (traces of) life on the Red Planet, the discovery of water always causes excitement. I previously wrote about such findings for the Nederlands Dagblad newspaper, at the beginning of 2018 and in 2020 (in Dutch, €).

It now appears that the radar images can also be explained in another way: alternating layers of dust in ice produce a comparably bright image. So there is no lake, but a collection of layers, a bit like a thousand-layer cake. This is also easier to explain than an underground lake with liquid water, which requires special conditions, such as a high concentration of perchloric salts. The new research was published on June 7 in the scientific journal Science.


For those who, like me, enjoyed the episode ‘The Waters of Mars’ in the BBC series Dr Who (season 4), it is a bit of a downer. But it is worth emphasizing that examination of the Martian surface has indeed shown evidence that flowing water was once present on the Red Planet, like this pebble bed.

How embryo models can tell us what it means to be human

‘How can a single cell, the fertilized egg, grow into the miracle of life – the baby?’ Developmental biologist Janet Rossant pens this question in a fascinating review of current embryological research that will shortly be published in the journal Developmental Biology.

Finding answers to this very fundamental question may tell us more about what it means to be human. For although many mammalian embryo’s look quite a bit like their human counterpart, there are lots of differences. And those differences mean that, although we can learn much about embryo’s from different model species like flies or mice, the only embryo that will tell us the full story is a human embryo.

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Arctic climate data less accurate without Russian data

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has halted most of the scientific cooperation with Western countries. Last Monday, an analysis published in Nature Climate Change showed that the monitoring of climate change in the Arctic is less accurate in the absence of Russian data.

INTERACT stations

The Arctic is warming two to four times faster than the global average. Data on climate change in this region is therefore important for our understanding of the trajectory of global warming. Scientists used model data from the INTERACT international network of Arctic research stations to see how accurate the data were with or without those from the Russian stations.

They conclude that even with the Russian stations, the data are not fully representative of the entire Arctic region. Omitting Russian data makes this bias worse, for example, because there is no information on what is happening in the Siberian taiga forest. This means predictions on how the global climate will develop this century will be less accurate.

Paper: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-023-01903-1  

How to get your science funded?

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As a scientist, you need funding. These days, most funding has to come from external sources, such as national funding agencies, the European Union or funding organizations aimed at specific topics, like the Dutch Kidney Foundation (Nierstichting Nederland).

To get funding, you will have to write a proposal outlining your plans, preferably supported by some pilot evidence. However, a good plan and some good preliminary results are often not enough. Most funding programs are heavily oversubscribed, so you have to stand out in the crowd – not only by good science but also by a good presentation.

Your proposal should be convincing and persuasive. Convincing means that you present your ideas and preliminary data in a clear manner. You can’t just list all your ideas and accomplishments, you need to present them in a story. That may sound odd to a scientist, but we’re not talking fiction here, nor a sales pitch, but a presentation that follows a clear storyline that allows the reader to follow your reasoning and see where you want to go.

That’s where editorial support comes in. As a science writer, I have ample experience in getting to the heart of your project and making sure the ‘story’ of your proposal is clear. Editing is not (just) about dotting i’s and crossing t’s, it is also about presenting your message as clearly as possible.

For a specialist in any field, the danger is always to skip steps in an explanation. As a non-specialist, I’m bound to notice those. In my short lecture ‘The Art of Scientific Storytelling’ I can take you through this process. And I can also go through your funding proposal and point out ways to make it more clear and more persuasive.

Feel free to contact me about editorial support.
If you want to read up on this topic, I recommend Funding Your Career in Science by Ritsert C. Jansen

A new way to fight antimicrobial resistance

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I wrote this story to mark the 2021 World Health Organization World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, on new ways to fight antimicrobial resistance using concepts from #ecology and #evolution. Fighting bacteria with bacteria! Work by Marjon de Vos at Faculty of Science and Engineering – University of Groningen and colleagues, featuring Timo van Eldijk:

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Two spotlights on companies in Green Chemistry

For the Chemport Europe website and newsletter, I have written two short articles on companies active in Green Chemistry in the Northern Netherlands. The first is on the Airo Group in Stadskanaal, which produces a range of product groups, based on vegetable oil, for lubrication, greasing and cleaning. Their biodegradable products should be free of hazard labels and have at least the same quality as fossil oil-based products, at a competitive price. This journey started when one of the companies founders, John Borgesius, came back from a bike ride with a chain blackened by dirt sticking to the chain oil.

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Comments on ‘Offener Brief von “Ärzte stehen auf” für einen verhältnismäßigen und evidenzbasierten Umgang mit Sars-Cov2

I was asked on Facebook for my opinion on an Open Letter from a large number of German medical doctors. Apart from posting it in a Facebook discussion, I publish it here, as the questions that are raised in the letter are fairly common.

This letter asks for a scientific debate on covid-19. I fully agree with that. However, the implication of the letter is that right now, the debate is unscientific, some voices are stifled and there is altogether too much panic. I beg to differ. I am not giving a line-by-line analysis, that should take too long. Just a few points that stood out for me.

1) A number of courageous individuals are attacked, ignored, stifled. I don’t know all these names, but one stood out: prof. Ioannidis. He has indeed been criticized. However, what I would like to point out here is that further on in the letter, it is said that the infection rate for covid-19 is comparable to the seasonal flue in Bulletin of the WHO, Article ID BLT.265892. Two remarks on this statement. a) It is presented as a WHO statement, but this is not true. It is a paper published in a WHO journal. b) The author of this paper is prof. Ioannidis. So he is allowed to publish his conclusions. And yes, this elicited criticism (see for example https://rapidreviewscovid19.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/p6tto8hl/release/1), but that is how science works.

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Who is this Scientific Dutchman – and what can he do for you?

Scientific Dutchman is a one-man company. It has a name because that’s required for registration at the Chamber of Commerce. But it is just me: René Fransen. I’ve loved science for as long as I can remember. Eventually, I studied Biology at Utrecht University, where I subsequently did a PhD and a postdoc, both at the University Medical Centre.

In 1995, I took a course in science journalism at SCW in Amsterdam and started to write on science. A year later, I became Science editor at the University of Groningen newspaper Universiteitskrant. In 2012, I moved to the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the same university as ‘Science Writer’, and increased my activities as a freelance science writer and consultant, which became ‘Scientific Dutchman’.

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