Random Samples

Science  31 Jan 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5607, pp. 657
  1. The Man-Eating Habit

    Man-eating lions may be more common than traditional lore suggests, according to scientists at Chicago's Field Museum. New findings, detailed in the current Journal of East African Natural History, suggest that the behavior can become ingrained in big cat culture and passed on through generations.

    Tsavo lion … descendant of man-eaters?CREDIT: HAROLD SCHEUTZ/THE FIELD MUSEUM

    Zoologists Julian C. Kerbis Peterhans and Thomas P. Gnoske analyzed legends surrounding the story of two Tsavo lions said to have killed 135 railway construction workers in Kenya in the 1890s. The pair was featured in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness, and their skins have been in Chicago's Field Museum since 1924. After examining historical records, research papers, and museum specimens, as well as records of other man-eating incidents, they concluded that the Tsavo incident was not as exceptional as had been thought. The actual number killed was probably closer to 28. And they found that man-eating in the region occurred regularly in the 19th century and through World War II.

    Factors such as scarcity of their usual prey, the regular availability of human corpses—from epidemics, for example—or injuries that inhibit prey-chasing can initially lead a lion into man-eating, say the authors. Once the behavior is instilled, it can be transmitted through the family, along with tricks such as learning not to attack the same village twice in a row, says Kerbis Peterhans. For example, the researchers uncovered reports of three generations of lions in Tanzania in the 1930s and '40s whose man-eating persisted until all members of the pride were killed.

    “Man-eating lions have often been considered aberrant … much like a rabid dog,” says Kerbis Peterhans. But behavioral ecologist Craig Packer at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, says that by documenting similarities among major outbreaks of man-eating lions, they have shown that the habit is not that hard to acquire.

  2. Bounce It Off Grandma

    “I don't think there is any concept that you can't make understandable to the educated lay public. I always tell my students and postdocs if you can't explain to your grandmother what you are doing, probably you don't understand it yourself properly.”

    —Nobelist Günter Blobel

    (in a conversation published in a Rockefeller University end-of-year publication)

  3. EPA Dumps Science Personnel Survey

    Managers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) science office have been trying to be more with-it—to which end they organized a seminar this month on a new management approach called “appreciative thinking.” But employees failed to appreciate a related survey, which was scrapped after staffers complained that it was too nosy.

    Appreciative thinking has to do with “the discipline of positive change,” according to a Web site by David Cooperrider, a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who pioneered the approach. The questionnaire, designed by former Cooperrider student Leslie Sekerka, asked staffers how they related to several hundred statements, including ones such as “I've often imagined being sexual with a friend, colleague, or acquaintance” and “I become self-conscious when using public toilets.”

    Henry L. Longest II, an administrator in EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD), e-mailed this document to all 1800 ORD scientists and staff before the seminar. Sekerka, who was doing the project for free as part of her research, was going to probe whether attitudes changed after the seminar.

    But Longest pulled the plug on the survey a day later after being deluged with complaints. An ORD official explains that Longest hadn't read all the questions and would not have sent them out if he had. “We are not studying shipboard compatibility here,” he notes, adding that Cooperrider was “apoplectic” about the questions and apologized.

    The conference went ahead as scheduled—with Cooperrider but without Sekerka, now at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Neither was available for comment. Sekerka referred a reporter to a school spokesperson who would only say that the business school dean has “initiated a review” of the survey.

  4. The Draw of Sex

    Mating flies.CREDIT: WIM VAN EGMOND

    Nature's ingenious variations on the male reproductive organ are on display through June at the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The hundreds of well- preserved penises and penis bones were donated to the museum by a Dutch collector, who wishes to remain anonymous. The exhibition also features a slide show of mating insects (see picture).

    People seem to love looking at bottles containing shriveled and grotesquely discolored penises and testicles of lions, pumas, and zebras, according to curator Kees Moeliker, who says the exhibit “really moves the visitors to the museum.”

  5. Commuter Physics Is a Hit

    A retired Amherst College physics professor has found a novel way to get people in western Massachusetts thinking about physics: He's teamed up with a cartoonist to create problems for the public to chew on while riding the bus. And the response has been gratifying.

    This month, Robert Romer and artist Bruce Aller posted their first problems in buses serving the five-college area, including this chestnut about whether the water level will go up or down if a weight is thrown out of a boat. Others ask about the behavior of a helium balloon in a moving car and whether a box of flying bees weighs less than one with the insects at rest. A Web site includes suggestions for home experiments (www.amherst.edu/∼physicsqanda).

    Bus lesson on mass vs. weight.CREDIT: BRUCE ALLER;

    Although some of the material seems a bit heavy, Romer says people have been eating it up. The site received 5000 separate visits on its first day, he says, and now gets 500 a day. Readers are even offering their own puzzlers, including: “Will your coffee be hotter if you add milk to it or pour the milk first?” and “Will jumping up and down reduce your chances of being injured in a falling elevator?”

  6. Jobs

    New Arecibo head. Robert Brown has signed on for 5 years as the new director of Cornell University's Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world's largest and most sensitive single-dish radio telescope. The 59-year-old Brown, who has spent his entire career at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, says he plans to spend a third of his time on location, bolstering morale among the 100-person staff and working for a budget hike that will allow the facility to take full advantage of a recent upgrade. The National Science Foundation has asked Cornell to keep closer tabs on the NSF-funded facility, whose current director, Cornell professor Paul Goldsmith, stepped down in December.

    Nobel leader. New York City's Rockefeller University chalked up another Nobel winner last week (bringing the total currently on staff to six) by recruiting cell biologist Paul Nurse, 54, as its new president. Born and educated in the U.K., Nurse takes charge of the 102-year-old research institution a year after former president, Arnold Levine, resigned following an indiscretion involving a female grad student in the campus bar. Like Levine, Nurse studies the molecular biology of cancer; he received the Nobel Prize in 2001 with Timothy Hunt and Leland Hartwell for work on “checkpoints” that regulate cell growth. Nurse will quit his post as CEO of the charity Cancer Research UK and start up a lab at Rockefeller.

  7. Scams

    Bogus education. There's a new “scientist” in Congress—if you don't look too closely at her credentials.

    Last year, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) asked the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate diploma mills and shed light on their unsavory practices. So GAO bought Collins an undergraduate degree in biology and a graduate degree in medical technology—all for only $1515. “It was easy as pie,” says GAO's Robyn Stewart, who chose the fields “to show how easy it is for someone to get a science degree.”

    The institution of which Collins is now alumna—Lexington University of Middletown, New York— is nonexistent. But Degrees- R-Us, the company that “educated” Collins, not only has a Web site (lexingtonuniversity.org) but also a telephone answering service to handle credential checks from not-too-diligent potential employers.

  8. Sidelines

    At top speed. Don't try telling Richard Tapia that drag racing and mathematics don't mix. At this month's Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore, Tapia (pictured at right), a math professor at Rice University in Houston, presented evidence that peeling rubber heats up tires and improves drag racers' acceleration. He also offered calculations that demonstrated the surprisingly large margin of error—6.5 km/h or more—in timing races.

    CREDIT: TOMMY LAVERGNE/RICE UNIVERSITY

    Tapia's finding builds on a lifelong love affair with drag racing. As a young man, he built a car with his twin brother, Bobby, that in 1968 set a world record. That ride fueled a career that took Bobby into the National Hot Rod Association's Hall of Fame. “Cars helped me with math and math helped me with cars,” says Tapia. “They came together.”

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