Random Samples

Science  28 Feb 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5611, pp. 1309
  1. Did RATS Bite Gore?

    In the 2000 presidential race, Democrats accused Republicans of trying to give voters a bad feeling about Al Gore by flashing the word “RATS” in a commercial criticizing his prescription medicine plan. Republicans pulled the ad, while claiming that RATS was just the tail end of the word BUREAUCRATS.

    Frame from the GOP TV ad.CREDIT: AP

    Given the excruciatingly close finish to the race, Joel Weinberger of Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, decided to test whether this kind of subliminal message might actually influence people's impression of a candidate.

    Reporting at last week's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver, Colorado, Weinberger said he and his colleagues created an online test (http://www.thoughtscan.com/) that presented a picture of a political candidate—a groomed graduate student—interrupted by microsecond flashes of either RATS, STAR, or XXXX. The 240 participants were then asked to rate the candidate on 10 qualities, such as competency and honesty, and to indicate whether they would vote for him.

    Weinberger found that when participants liked the candidate, the subliminal letters had no effect. But among those who said they wouldn't vote for him, there was a far more negative reaction to the picture that flashed RATS. From this small sample of words, concludes Weinberger, it seems as though it's much easier to create negative than positive opinions. “If the Bush campaign did this,” he opines, “then it would have worked.”

  2. Early Death for Infrequent Shavers?

    Stubble may equal trouble, in the form of increased risk of heart attack and stroke for those who don't shave frequently, according to an oddball study from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. The rate of facial hair growth could be an unconventional marker for these afflictions, says epidemiologist Shah Ebrahim.

    Research suggests that high male hormone levels can increase risk of heart disease, but Ebrahim says there is anecdotal evidence that low levels—as indicated by less pronounced secondary sexual characteristics such as facial hair—could also be a problem.

    To explore a possible link, the Bristol team decided to test shaving frequency as a proxy for facial hair growth rate. Over a 20-year period, they monitored heart attacks and strokes among 2438 men aged 45 to 59 living in Caerphilly, a former mining community in Wales. Subjects were divided into two groups: those who shaved once or more a day, and those who didn't. Bearded men were excluded.

    The upshot? Over the 2 decades, 45% of the infrequent shavers died, compared with just 31% of those who had daily recourse to the razor, according to results appearing in the February American Journal of Epidemiology. The infrequent shavers also were more likely to be unmarried, smokers, and manual workers, but Ebrahim says that even controlling for these factors, the occasional shavers had a 70% increased risk of stroke. “A small hormonal effect may exist,” which increases stroke risk and causes a slower rate of facial hair growth, says Ebrahim, although further research is necessary to explain the mechanism. In the meantime, he cautions that “shaving more probably isn't going to help” men stay healthy.

  3. Anatomy Classes Face Gross Shortage

    That rite of passage of medical education, the gross anatomy class, is facing a dearth of instructors. More than 80% of anatomy departments at U.S. medical schools anticipate “great” or “moderate” difficulty finding qualified gross anatomy teachers in the next 5 years, according to a national survey presented this month in Panama at the annual meeting of the Association of Anatomy, Cell Biology, and Neurobiology Chairpersons. To head off the problem, departments are giving on-the-job training to junior faculty members, paying graduate students to take the lengthy course, and pulling professors out of retirement.

    The first-year class, which includes about 170 hours of human dissection, has lost its appeal for those headed for a research career—the traditional source of instructors —in part because anatomy has become increasingly molecular, focusing on cells rather than organs. And even properly trained researchers often don't want to teach the class, because it demands roughly twice as much time as other courses, according to the survey conducted by the American Association of Anatomists. But most agree that for medical students, those long hours are essential. Substitutes, such as virtual anatomical imaging, can never fully replace the real thing, says Robert McCuskey of the University of Arizona, Tucson: “I certainly wouldn't want a surgeon working on me who'd never actually touched a gallbladder.”

  4. At the Head of His Class

    David Hanson goes to the University of California, San Diego, to study cognitive science, to UCLA for sculpture, and his home institution of the University of Texas, Dallas, for computer graphics and engineering. But the 33-year-old graduate student's most important trip may have been to a neighborhood bar, where he met and measured the model for K-Bot.

    David Hanson and friend.CREDIT: THE DENVER POST

    Scientists say K-Bot, named for Hanson's friend Kristen Nelson, is one of the most realistic human facial robots ever made. It consists of a head and 24 mechanical muscles encased in a new lifelike urethane polymer called f'rubber, with video cameras in its eyes to watch who's watching it. At this month's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a lipsticked, eyelinered K-Bot by turn smiled and scowled at reporters in sync with commands from Hanson's laptop computer.

    “I aspire to the ideal of a Renaissance man,” says Hanson, who has worked on entertainment robots for the Walt Disney Co. He plans to add artificial intelligence to K-Bot's successors, creating a new medium: sculpture that responds appropriately to a viewer. He hopes its ability to respond to nonverbal cues will be useful to cognitive science researchers, and perhaps also to therapists working with autistic children. And his ultimate goal? “A compassionate, sociable robot,” he says, “that will one day become our peer.”

  5. Jobs

    Well-endowed. Martin Nowak will soon have a reported $30 million endowment with which to beef up what he calls “one of the biggest growth areas in science.” The 38-year-old Viennese-born mathematician and biologist is moving this summer from the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, to Harvard University to lead a new program in mathematical biology. The program's benefactor is billionaire financial planner Jeffrey Epstein, who has supported some of Nowak's previous work using information theory, game theory, and other mathematical ideas to understand evolution, language development, and the spread of diseases.

    CREDITS: IAS

    Biology has always been empirical, but slowly people are realizing how important theory is,” says Nowak, who hopes to attract talent by offering fellowships and research opportunities to students and visiting slots to faculty. He also hopes to strengthen the connections between Harvard's math department, biology department, medical school, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

    Tech transfer. Leonard Peters has been named director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. Officials at Battelle, which manages the $550 million lab for the Department of Energy, say they were impressed with Peters's success in commercializing new ventures at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, where he was vice provost. He starts 1 April.

  6. Data Point

    Political scientists.CQ Weekly, the bible of U.S. politics for the Capitol Hill crowd, has decided that being a scientist is a legitimate profession after all. Next year, the magazine will add the designation to its annual listing of what members did before being elected to Congress.

    CQ's Peter King says that, based on his analysis of the new 108th Congress, “science deserves its own category.” Although there are no Senate scientists, he has concluded that five current House members qualify for the label. They are physicists Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), microbiologist Louise Slaughter (D-NY), mining geologist Jim Gibbons (R-NV), and chemist Barbara Cubin (R-WY).

  7. Awards

    CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

    Cell historian. Microbiologist Carl Woese, discoverer of the “third domain of life,” is the winner of this year's $500,000 Crafoord Prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Woese, 72, is at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His work on the archaea, primitive microbes that often live in extreme environments, in collaboration with microbiologist Ralph S. Wolfe, elevated archaea in the late 1970s to another branch of life, joining eukaryotes (plants and animals) and bacteria.

    “Molecular techniques have allowed us to become evolutionists at the molecular level,” says Woese. “Still, the molecular view of the world does not genuinely accommodate evolution; otherwise you would find more people like myself.”

    CREDITS: NAE

    NAE prizes. Two pioneers in the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the designer of the first artificial kidney and other organs have been honored by the National Academy of Engineering. The 2003 Charles S. Draper prize goes to Ivan Getting, 91 (top), founding president of The Aerospace Corp., and Bradford Parkinson, 68 (middle), a former Pentagon official and professor emeritus at Stanford University, for their work on GPS. The Fritz and Dolores Russ Prize, awarded biennially, goes to Dutch-born internist Willem Kolff (bottom), who at 91 is still at work in his Pennsylvania home on his latest device, an artificial lung. Each prize includes $500,000.