Random Samples

Science  04 Apr 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5616, pp. 47

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  1. Sands Sing for France

    It's taken about 13 centuries and an accidental avalanche in the Moroccan desert to reveal the secrets of the mysterious song of the dunes.

    Sand sound machine.CREDIT: LAURENT QUARTIER

    Singing sands, first mentioned in an 8th century Chinese manuscript, have been described by many explorers. Dunes sometimes emit a low-pitched sound—it's been compared to a cross between an airplane engine and an organ—in at least 30 deserts, including the Gobi, Sahara, Kalahari, and Death Valley.

    Now a team of French government researchers from the Statistical Physics Laboratory at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris have dissected the song of the dunes. The five researchers were in Tarfaya in southwestern Morocco in spring 2001 to study the formation of barchans, or croissant-shaped sand dunes, when an accidental avalanche suddenly unleashed the sound, which has also been compared to a Tibetan horn.

    The team, headed by Stéphane Douady, captured it on their tape recorders. On their return to France, they succeeded in replicating the sound by slowly churning 72 kilograms of Moroccan sand in an annulus, a 2-meter-diameter doughnut-shaped container. Douady says the phenomenon operates according to a principle known as Reynolds dilatency, which describes a vibration created by the dilation and compression of air as grains separate and come together. The researchers found that the unique sound required an avalanche of a layer of sand grains—each 0.19 mm across—about 10 cm or 500 grains deep. Yet to be determined is what makes all the grains in a layer of sand start moving at once.

  2. Citing Self

    Do scientists cite their own work in order to puff up citation rates? If so, it may not work. A Norwegian study of research papers from 20 scientific disciplines reveals that the least-cited papers typically have the highest rates of self-citation.

    Dag W. Aksnes of the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Research and Higher Education looked at 47,000 papers produced by Norwegian scientists between 1981 and 1996. About one-fifth cited other papers by the same authors, he reported in the February issue of Scientometrics. Chemists and astrophysicists were among the most self-referential, with self-citations in 31% of the papers. Next came physics (26%), molecular biology (22%), geosciences (21%), neuroscience (18%), and clinical medicine (17%). Self-citations could be a problem because they “hardly can be considered to reflect any impact of a work in the scientific community,” Aksnes believes.

    “Counting [citations] has become a cottage industry,” says linguist Ken Hyland of the City University of Hong Kong. He reported on an international survey of 240 articles in February's Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. Biology papers had the most self-citations, with an average of 22.6 for every 10,000 words—almost double the rate of 11.9 for the next highest, electronic engineering.

    Hyland thinks that self-citation is on the rise. Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, believes it's all about pumping up the numbers for citation indexes. Once all journals are online, he suggests, the practice may diminish because indexing algorithms can easily detect self-citation.

  3. Divorce Imminent?


    Columbia University in New York City has for some time been signaling a desire to back out of its association with Biosphere 2, the glass-enclosed eco-experiment in southern Arizona (Science, 10 January, p. 183). Now the company that owns it, Decisions Investments Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas, is suing the university for breach of contract. The suit, filed on 21 March in Pinal County Superior Court, alleges that Columbia has not fulfilled its commitment to build a new lab and hire a half-dozen new researchers, and that it has abandoned educational programs.

    The university took over Biosphere in 1996 with plans to turn it into a research and education center, but high costs and leadership changes at Columbia have cooled its interest. A Columbia spokesperson says they're not commenting on the suit.

  4. Tracking the Giant Squid


    No one has yet managed to capture a picture of a living giant squid. Most die from rapid pressure change when fishers accidentally pull them up from their deep-water homes. But next fall, a team of Spanish scientists hopes to film this rare cephalopod, which can reach lengths of up to 20 meters. The Spanish Research Council team will operate 30 km off Spain's northwest coast, equipped with more sophisticated gear than in two earlier failed forays—including a submersible and rotatable cameras planted on subsurface buoys.

    There is a “huge scientific interest” in watching a living specimen, says zoologist Oscar Soriano. One mystery that a squid flick could solve: how fast the animals move. Because they burn proteins rather than fats for energy, they should have slow metabolisms and therefore be slow movers, he says. But fast tentacle action is suggested by the type of fish found in one squid's stomach.

  5. Songs of Life

    Motokawa with his songs.CREDIT: D. NORMILE

    “The Sperm's Lament,” “The Gene Waltz,” and “The Seed-Sowing Mendel” are not likely to top the pop music charts. But as long as they can enliven high school biology, Tatsuo Motokawa, a biologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, will have succeeded. The numbers are part of a three-CD-and-book compilation called “Singing Biology,” containing 70 songs written and sung by Motokawa, with accompanying text.

    Motokawa, 54, began his musical lectures 20 years ago at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa. “They were afternoon classes, it's hot in Okinawa, I needed help keeping students' eyes open,” says Motokawa, whose own research focuses on echinoderms: starfish, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins.

    After moving to the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1991, Motokawa stopped performing in the classroom—“I was told singing is just not done in university classes,” he says. But he continued to popularize science, producing five books for the general public, a couple of illustrated science books for children, and a CD of songs about biology.

    Each song in his latest CD-and-text collection, released last December and intended to supplement standard high school textbooks, touches on a key concept. “The Sperm's Lament” gives a tour of mammalian reproductive organs from the viewpoint of a sperm who “swam and swam by swinging my flagellum, the long, long way up to the oviduct.” (It rhymes in Japanese.) “The Gene Waltz,” not surprisingly, describes the romantic entanglement of two strands of reproducing DNA.

    Although Motokawa's tunes may never go platinum, his collection has sold well enough for his publisher to order a similar volume for junior high students. Whoever thought biology notes could be this much fun?

  6. Awards

    Franklin prize. Synthetic chemist Susan Gibson is the first winner of the Rosalind Franklin award from the Royal Society. Gibson, a professor at King's College, London, plans to use part of the $47,000 prize money to host prominent women scientists from around the world.

    “Giving women scientists more visibility will help attract more women into science,” says Gibson, 42, who continued her work on how metals mediate organic synthesis through the birth of two children, and 4-month maternity leaves, in the past 5 years. Her husband, Imperial College chemist Vernon Gibson, shared the load by also going part-time. Susan Gibson takes issue with numerous studies about gender discrimination, arguing that “it's easier for women to succeed in science than in other fields because scientists and academics are among the most broad-minded people you can find.”

  7. Jobs

    Talk to me. Longtime Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist William Farland has been named chief scientist to EPA science adviser and research chief Paul Gilman. The new position is part of an effort to beef up EPA science, but EPA's former research chief Robert Huggett, now at Michigan State University in East Lansing, likens the change to “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Last May, EPA Administrator Christine Whitman named Gilman her science adviser after a 2000 National Research Council report recommended that EPA get a science czar to oversee all agency research. Farland's appointment gives Gilman an aide, but Farland's tenure may be short: The long-time head of EPA's risk assessment office, Farland expects to put in a bid to become Gilman's deputy director for science in the Office of Research and Development.

  8. In the Courts

    Charged. Belgian authorities last week charged a former European Union research and education commissioner with fraud. In March 1999, Edith Cresson and 19 other E.U. commissioners resigned following allegations of cronyism. Four years later, a Belgian investigating magistrate has alleged that Cresson and staff members falsified contracts, forged signatures, and embezzled E.U. funds during her 4-year tenure. She drew particular opprobrium for helping a French friend with dubious qualifications gain lucrative contracts for work as a consultant on AIDS.

    Cresson, who has denied the allegations, faces up to 5 years in prison if convicted at trial. The European Commission has just launched a separate investigation into the allegations.

  9. Data Points

    Too happy campers? Staff members at the National Science Foundation (NSF) are much more likely than their government peers to respect their boss, feel they have enough resources to do their jobs, and think that their agency is “one of the best” places to work. That's according to a new survey by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management of 100,000 federal employees, including one in three NSF workers (http://www.fhcs.opm.gov/).

    “We look good in the things we care most about,” says NSF's acting personnel chief Joseph Burt. But a little more whining might be better for the agency's bottom line. Director Rita Colwell has asked Congress for a 12% increase in the agency's 2004 administrative budget on the grounds that the staff is overworked and that terrorist threats require more stringent electronic and physical security measures.

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