Random Samples

Science  03 Jan 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5603, pp. 41
  1. Hermit Fixer-Upper

    The vast quantities of humanmade trash unleashed upon the seas usually harm the denizens of the deep. But hermit crabs may be taking advantage of the pollution, new research suggests. The crabs are climbing up the mobile property ladder by way of broken bottlenecks, plastic containers, and other trash.

    Hermit crabs typically reside in secondhand mollusk shells collected from dead or living gastropods. They obtain their mobile homes in bizarre swap meets with other unsatisfied hermit crab homeowners, dig them up from the sea floor, or even fix up ancient fossil shells. Still, suitable shells are often in short supply—and human activities have added to crab housing shortages by hurting some mollusk populations.

    Crab in a bottle.CREDIT: D. K. A. BARNES/BIOLOGIST

    Ironically, however, human trash might help fill the gap, says ecophysiologist David K. A. Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, U.K. The quantity of ocean-borne trash—mostly plastic—is rising, he notes, and some of the refuse has become prized real estate.

    Hermit crabs all over the Pacific and Indian oceans, from heavily developed Asian coastlines to remote islands, are starting to make homes in plastics and glass, Barnes reports in the December issue of Biologist. “Suitably shaped persistent rubbish, like bottle tops, could yet become one of the most plentiful sources of housing,” he predicts.

  2. Cyberscents

    Imagine being overwhelmed by the smell of a forest or tasting the salt air while running a computer mouse over trees or an ocean depicted on an electronic map.

    That's the goal of a 4-year, $1.71 million Canadian project to develop a pair of multisensory “cybermaps.” The researchers are banking on the notion that people will acquire a better grasp of any kind of data if those data are presented in formats that appeal not only to sight and sound but smell, taste, and touch.


    The project director, geographer Fraser Taylor of Carleton University in Ottawa, says the first projects will be two cybermaps: one portraying the environmental conditions on Antarctica, and the other of Canadian trade patterns. He says the technology for generating touch sensations is already proven and that project partner Telecom Italia has developed an “Electronic Nose” that breaks down vapors into their component chemicals, transmits the data online, and then recombines them at the other end as “virtual odor displays that will puff out that smell into the user's face.” Taste, however, has a way to go.

    The cybermaps should help scientists learn more about how humans interact with computers as well as their “physical and commercial environments,” says Marc Renaud, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which is funding the project.

  3. Deadly Embrace


    One hundred years ago last month, an inexplicable piloting error sent the five- masted Louise B. Crary (left in photo) crashing into the Frank A. Palmer, the largest four-masted schooner ever built. Both ships, heavy with coal bound for Boston, sank within minutes in icy New England waters, and 11 of 21 crew members died. Marine explorers located the wrecks 13 years ago on the sea floor of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Massachusetts. But the first clear picture—released on 16 December to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster —came just last summer, made possible by state-of-the-art side-scan sonars that enable researchers to piece together remarkably detailed three-dimensional images in even the darkest depths.

  4. More Men Ready for Cloning


    Men are generally more likely to be risk-takers than women—a characteristic evident in responses to a telephone survey of 1211 U.S. adults conducted in October by the Genetics and Public Policy Center of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. The majority of respondents of both sexes approved of using gene technology to avoid genetic diseases, the center reported last month. But males and females diverge greatly when it comes to the notion of juggling genes for the purpose of creating a better quality child, with men more supportive of intervention (see chart).

    Eugenics is gaining broader acceptance overall, however. The percentage of people who approve of genetic engineering to create desirable traits has doubled, from 10% to 20%, since 1994.

  5. To Be Young and in Print


    Kevin Wei Gan has already hit two jackpots at the age of 17. Last month, he won second place—and a $50,000 scholarship—in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology for his work last summer on superconductivity in compressed lithium at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. The award came barely a month after his paper on the same topic was published in Science (8 November, p. 1213).

    Curious about how many teen authors have published in Science in recent years, we did a search and came up with one other: Catherine Johnson (née Morris), first author on a paper involving composite aerogels (23 April 1999, p. 622) based on work she did during high school in summer internships at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C.

    What's the key to such precocious success? Gan and Johnson both give a lot of credit to supportive labmates. “I wanted a first-class lab that allows you to do research, not just sit at a computer,” says Gan, who says he found that at Carnegie. “Kevin is already working at the level of a graduate student,” says his Carnegie mentor, condensed matter physicist Viktor Struzhkin. Johnson says that at NRL she was “encouraged to come up with my own ideas. After a while, I said, ‘I can do this, too, even though I don't have a Ph.D.’” Debra Rolison, head of NRL's advanced electrochemical materials program, adds that not every high school intern could say that, but “Cathy has true chemical intuition.”

    What next? Gan, a senior at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland, says his career plans are uncertain. Johnson, now 25, has a B.S. in chemical engineering and is a test engineer at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. But she's thinking about grad school and then, perhaps, a job where she can “do the same thing for students that Debra did for me.”


    Promise … Girls who want to have it all may be glad to learn about a new $100,000 prize to foster the emergence of the female “Luthers, Lockes, or Darwins of our current age.”


    Natalia Komarova, a 30-year-old, Russian-born biological mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, is the first winner of the “Prize for Promise,” offered by Student Achievement & Advocacy Services. The organization was formed to run an online mentoring program for elementary school students (achievementadvocate.org), but with this prize it's also branching into seeding role models.

    Widely published and traveled, Komarova came to IAS in 1999 and is currently modeling the evolution of language along Darwinian principles. Komarova says she herself never had a woman role model—her main inspiration was her physicist father. But she agrees that women often have a hard time being successful in both career and family life. In math, she says, “it is usually one way or the other.”

    A $10,000 slice of Komarova's prize will go to Agata Smogorzewska, 30, a telomere researcher at Rockefeller University in New York City.

    … Fulfilled. This year's Japan Prize goes to investigators of two “universal concepts” underlying complex systems: chaos and fractals. The winners are James Yorke, a professor of math and physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot of Yale University. In 1975, Yorke first used the term chaos to describe the mathematical study of nonlinear dynamic systems. Mandelbrot is the father of fractals. The two men will share $400,000.


    Henderson (right) cooling his heels.CREDIT: PAUL HARING

    Not Burundi. The scientist who arguably knows the most about combating smallpox almost missed President George W. Bush's long-awaited vaccination policy announcement last month because he could not get past White House security guards. Clutching his official briefing book, Donald A. Henderson (above right), 74 and coatless against an icy wind, watched reporters walk past as he waited more than 20 minutes for his security clearance. “If the government of Burundi had worked like this,” grumbled Henderson, recalling his leadership of the World Health Organization's campaign in the 1960s and '70s, “we would never have eradicated smallpox.”


    Changes at Carnegie. The Carnegie Institution of Washington spent 2 years searching the world for a new leader—before finding him on its board of trustees. Richard Meserve, who currently heads the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), will take over the century-old research institution in April from biochemist Maxine Singer.



    A 58-year-old physicist turned lawyer, Meserve confesses that he hasn't worked at the bench since graduate school and that he's “a different type of chief executive” from Singer, a National Medal of Science winner who joined Carnegie in 1987. He's also a newcomer to big-time fundraising. But Singer “is leaving this place in great shape,” he says.

    Singer, 71, plans to remain active in the institution's educational projects with local schools. And this month she becomes chair of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Meserve is leaving NRC a year before his term expires because “the Carnegie job was too good to pass up.”

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