Random Samples

Science  19 Sep 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5640, pp. 1665

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  1. Pudgy Pets

    It's not just the people who are riding a tide of unprecedented obesity in the United States. Their pets too are ballooning.

    Too much Captain's Dinner.


    About 25% of cats and dogs in the Western world are now too fat, according to a report released this month by the National Research Council. The 500-page review of pet nutrition studies over the past 25 years reports that this trend has been particularly apparent since the early 1990s. Precise estimates are lacking, but “most practicing veterinarians will tell you that they are seeing more of it now than they did then,” says Francis Kallfelz, a veterinary nutritionist at Cornell University who helped compile the report.

    Pet obesity tracks the trend in human obesity “pretty well,” says nutritionist George C. Fahey Jr. of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. And “heavier people tend to have heavier pets … often for the same reason” (between-meal snacks).

    Urbanization and the tendency to keep pets indoors have also added to the bloat, as has the bewildering array of tempting dishes that target quadrupeds as well as their owners. Fahey notes that the problem is particularly apparent in dog breeds with low energy requirements such as Labradors, cocker spaniels, and sporting breeds. The solution? More fiber for Spot and Puff—and less indulgence on the part of their owners.

  2. Spiritual Bass

    Some church organs sport pipes almost 20 meters long—producing bass notes as low as 8 Hz in frequency. That's way below the lower limit of human hearing, but some believe these frequencies, even when not directly sensed by worshippers, add to the awe.


    Now there's experimental evidence to back up that idea. Inspired by reports of haunting experiences near sources of infrasound, Sarah Angliss, a composer and acoustic engineer based in Brighton, U.K., teamed up with physicists and psychologists at several research institutes to see how infrasound might affect the music experience.

    In May, the researchers used a 7-meter-long acoustic cannon, basically a “dirty great sewer pipe,” to pump extreme bass notes at 17 Hz—just below the lower limit of human hearing—into a London concert auditorium, says Angliss. An audience of 278 was exposed to infrasound during two out of four pieces in a piano concert; in another concert, 244 people were exposed to infrasound during the other two pieces.

    Audience members were then asked to fill out questionnaires describing feelings inspired by each piece. The music accompanied by infrasound significantly boosted hearers' general emotional arousal, said Angliss, who revealed the findings on 8 September at the British Association's Festival of Science in Salford. And there was a 22% rise in “odd feelings” such as “shivers down the spine” and a “strange blend of tranquility and unease.”

    Vic Tandy, a former electrical engineer at the University of Coventry who has studied the haunting-infrasound connection, says, “In my view, infrasound triggers the body's fight-or-flight response,” and the context determines how these feelings are interpreted.

  3. Unexpected Turbulence


    A massive NASA weather satellite being prepared for a 2008 launch slipped its moorings and toppled onto its side in a Lockheed Martin plant in Sunnyvale, California, on 9 September. It looked like a nasty fall; managers are still waiting for a damage assessment. The 4.3-meter-high, $239 million spacecraft is due to orbit the poles, sending back weather data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

  4. The Greening of Peter

    Former world leaders Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev have come together to narrate the musical children's story of Peter and the Wolf-with a new environmentally conscious twist.


    In the version immortalized by composer Sergei Prokofiev, Peter triumphs over the animal and marches it off to the zoo. But a more sophisticated wolf and an eco-savvy Peter emerge in a new recording, Wolf Tracks, to be released on 23 September, which couples the upgraded tale with music by composer Jean-Pascal Beintus. This time the story ends with Peter freeing the wolf to the wild and meditating about the environment. Intones narrator Clinton: “Forgetting his triumph, Peter thought instead of fallen trees, parched meadows, choked streams, and of each and every wolf struggling for survival. … The time has come to leave wolves in peace.” Proceeds from the CD's sale will go to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York.

  5. Jobs

    Earth calling. He fixed the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, but can he fix NASA's troubles on the ground? John Grunsfeld, a veteran astronaut and astronomer, took over last week as chief scientist at the space agency. The job lacks budget authority, staff, and set duties, and the bulk of NASA's science decisions are made by three separate offices. But being down the hall from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe can be a big advantage, says a former chief scientist, “if the administrator is willing to listen.”


    Grunsfeld's immediate predecessor and fellow astronaut Shannon Lucid, who had a hard time gaining that access, is returning to Houston's Johnson Space Center after an 18-month stint that covered the Columbia disaster in February and focused on revamping the space station's science program. Having O'Keefe's ear should help Grunsfeld in rebuilding—or building—the station's science credibility, one of his priorities. Grunsfeld, who serviced Hubble twice in the course of flying four missions, was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

    Precious find. Throwing over Bordeaux for Leipzig, French anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin has joined Germany's top anthropology research center.

    The quest to find an anthropologist had become something of an embarrassment for the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which opened in 1998. A number of world-class researchers decided that the attraction of not having to write grant applications—thanks to the generous research and personnel budgets of the Max Planck Society—couldn't overcome their qualms about living in this staid, midsize city in former East Germany.

    But Hublin says that “the resources and the total freedom to recruit an international team of young experts” made him decide to leave the University of Bordeaux and join the institute's interdisciplinary team of geneticists, primatologists, psychologists, and linguists. An expert on the evolution of Neandertals and modern humans, Hublin will head up a new department of human evolution.

  6. Awards

    Farm's loss, biology's gain. Biochemist Robert Roeder, who helped discover the molecular basis of DNA transcription, has won this year's Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. Of the 127 scientists who have won the prize since 1946, 60 have gone on to become Nobel laureates.


    The 61-year-old researcher at Rockefeller University in New York City has had a rocky ride to scientific stardom. Resisting pressure to remain on the family farm in southern Indiana, he later decided that he wasn't smart enough to study math and suffered through a disappointing graduate project—“until the 12th hour.” That's when he made his famous discovery of RNA polymerases, three enzymes that kick-start the transcription of DNA inside the cell by reading genes.

    Michael Green, one of Roeder's former students and a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, credits Roeder with recognizing the value of a novel biochemical approach and “sticking with it through good and bad times.” Roeder attributes his success to a combination of “diligence, innovation, and passion.”

    Capital human. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Aristides Patrinos, who played a quiet but stellar role in leading the Human Genome Project alongside the more visible Francis Collins of the National Human Genome Research Institute, received his share of the glory last week when the department honored both researchers with the Secretary's Gold Award. A mechanical engineer who heads DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Patrinos is credited with spearheading the development of sequencing technologies. “Ari is an enormously modest, very effective, and well-organized administrator,” says molecular biologist Leroy Hood, director of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington. “They [he and Collins] couldn't be more different in personality.”

  7. Milestones

    A legend departs. Theoretical physicist Edward Teller, who fathered the hydrogen bomb, died last week at his home on the Stanford University campus. He was 95.

    Building on the work of Stanislaw Ulam, Teller figured out how to use the radiation from an atom bomb to implode a “secondary” filled with light elements such as deuterium and lithium. The fusion reaction in the secondary yields immensely more energy than an ordinary atom bomb, as was first demonstrated 1 November 1952 over the Pacific island of Elugelab.


    Teller was “tremendously ingenious,” recalls Richard Garwin, a physicist at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Yet his political stances were controversial. Teller was reviled for his role in getting J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance revoked in the 1950s. Three decades later, Teller cemented his reputation as an unabashed hawk—and a possible inspiration for Dr. Strangelove—when he advocated a “Star Wars” antimissile program of space-based x-ray lasers. This summer he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.