Random Samples

Science  17 Oct 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5644, pp. 387

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  1. Feathers Fly at Ig Nobel Ceremony

    There was an avian note to the proceedings this year for the Ig Nobels, the annual anti-Nobel rite held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by the Annals of Improbable Research.


    Stefano Ghirlanda of Stockholm University in Sweden got the interdisciplinary research prize for proving that chickens appreciate beauty. Through a scheme involving training chickens and roosters to peck at computer screens displaying a range of feminine and masculine faces, the scientists ascertained that the birds pecked most enthusiastically on the same opposite-sex faces that human volunteers selected as the most datable. The authors say this suggests that human preferences arise from general properties of nervous systems rather than from face-specific adaptations.

    On the biology front, Kees Moeliker, curator of the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam in the Netherlands, won an Ig Nobel for illuminating the dark side of duck sexuality: He became the first to document a homosexual act of necrophilia in mallards. And in chemistry, Yukio Hirose of Kanazawa University in Japan won for his discovery that pigeons avoided a bronze statue because it contained arsenic.

    Animals also figured in the physics award, which went to an Australian team for working out the “forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces.”

  2. Methyl Mapping

    A project to reveal the missing link between genetic inheritance and environmental influences on the human genome was launched last week by the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust and the Berlin-based company Epigenomics.

    The Human Epigenome Project will pinpoint control regions in our genetic code where cells can turn genes off by adding a methyl group to cytosine, one of DNA's four building blocks (Science, 12 May 2000, p. 945). No one knows where these altered bases are, as standard sequencing techniques don't reveal them. For the next 5 years, at a cost of about $50 million, researchers will probe millions of methyl C locations in DNA from a variety of tissues.

    The map could highlight early signs of disease as well as aid understanding of how different lifestyles alter gene expression, says Stephan Beck, who oversees the project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge.

  3. Plankton in the Tank

    The average gas tank holds the remains of more than 1000 tons of ancient plant matter. Jeffrey Dukes, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has figured it out.


    “My wife and I were driving through southern Utah in a big Suburban, and I was thinking about how much gas we were burning,” he says. So he decided to trace that fuel to its source: dying phytoplankton.

    Only 2% of the plankton make their way to the ocean floor, where they are buried under thousands of meters of rock. Heat from Earth's core pressure-cooks the remains, about 75% of which become oil. A small fraction of this squeezes toward the surface, accumulating in wells where humans can get at about one-quarter of it.

    Dukes estimates that, taking into account all the slop along the way, 90 metric tons of dying phytoplankton—equivalent to 16 hectares of wheat—went into making each gallon of gasoline. All the green the planet grows in 400 years wouldn't quite produce the fossil fuels we burn in one, Dukes concludes in a study to appear in the November issue of Climatic Change.

    There is a lot of uncertainty in these estimates, notes Leslie Magoon, a petroleum geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. But it's a new approach, he says, and “new things come from new ways of thinking.”

  4. What a Blink Tells

    Although scientists say homosexuality is partly determined by the environment, evidence is mounting—this time from an eye-blink test—that it's the prenatal environment that counts most.

    Loud, unexpected noises make people blink. But that response is dampened by what's called prepulse inhibition (PPI) if the noise is preceded by a quieter sound. PPI is stronger in men than women.

    To see if the blink test would yield information about the neurological basis for sexual orientation, psychologist Qazi Rahman, now at the University of East London, and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College studied the PPIs of 59 people, divided almost equally between gay and straight men and women. Each listened to white noise punctuated by brief pulses of sound about as loud as a hammer hitting a metal plate. Some of these bursts were preceded by a quieter prepulse. Electrodes tracked the muscle around the right eye. The results showed clear differences between the groups. Heterosexual men had a PPI of 40%, gays 32%, and heterosexual women 13%. Lesbians were closer to the men with a PPI of 33%, the scientists report in the October issue of Behavioral Neuroscience.

    Psychologist Dennis McFadden of the University of Texas, Austin, who reported a few years ago that the inner ears of lesbians show a “masculinized” response to brief sounds (another test where the sexes differ), calls the study further evidence that “something is going on early in development to alter the bodies, brains, and behaviors of females who eventually become lesbians.” Scientists theorize that homosexual women are exposed to higher levels of male sex hormones in the womb than are straight women.

  5. Jobs

    Iraqi shakeup. Iraqi archaeologist Donny George has been chosen as the new director-general of Iraq's museums, according to sources in Baghdad. George, currently the research director for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, was critical of the U.S. failure to halt the looting at the Iraq Museum in April but has longstanding ties to foreign researchers, speaks perfect English, and wants to modernize the museum's antiquated systems.


    George made his first visit to the United States last week, talking about the plight of Iraq's antiquities, which continue to be looted from sites in the south. The current museum chief, Nawalla al-Mutawalli, plans to return to Baghdad University to pursue her work on cuneiform tablets.

    Big league. Developmental biologist Norka Ruiz Bravo is tipped to become the new head of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) extramural grants office, according to sources. She will replace behavioral researcher Wendy Baldwin, who left in December for the University of Kentucky, Louisville.

    Ruiz Bravo, who currently oversees extramural research at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, has worked at NIH since 1990. Her new job requires her to oversee the processing of 43,500 grants per year and deal with regulations and policies impacting researchers, from human subject protection to animal care.

    Ruiz Bravo only recently appeared on the list of candidates for the position, sources say. “She's very knowledgeable, insightful, and pleasant to deal with,” says David Korn of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

  6. Awards

    Explaining science. Three science writers and two broadcast journalists won accolades last week for their efforts to communicate science to a general audience.

    Ecologist-turned-writer Carl Safina, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, and National Public Radio correspondent Joe Palca are the inaugural winners of the National Academies' Communication Awards, part of the academies' Keck Futures Initiative. Safina won for Eye of the Albatross, an account of the diverse relationships between living organisms and their ocean ecosystem. Revkin was honored for his articles on climate change, and Palca won for his radio stories on cloning. Each winner receives $20,000.

    BBC's Alastair Fothergill and freelance writer Robert Kunzig each won $5000 as the first recipients of the Ocean Science Journalism Award from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Fothergill was honored for producing the television series The Blue Planet: Seas of Life. Kunzig won for his book, Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science.

  7. Nonprofit World

    Canopy of troubles. The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), an international consortium of more than 60 research institutions, is looking for new leadership to pull it out of a financial quagmire.


    Based at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, OTS runs education programs and maintains one of the world's premier tropical field stations: La Selva, Costa Rica. Led for the past 7 years by ecologist Gary Hartshorn, the organization added new facilities, expanded educational activities, and built up a $4 million endowment. But sources say its operating budget failed to keep pace with the growth—partly because of the economic slump—forcing it to dip into reserves.

    Hartshorn, who left last month to become head of the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon, says he felt “overloaded” by the need to both manage OTS and raise money. The new job, he says, gives him a chance “to be more closely involved in global forestry issues” and sustainable forest management.

  8. Performers

    Silent night. The stars shone brightly last week in Washington, D.C. But almost nobody saw them.

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) flew in 20 of the country's most prominent astronomers to speak at the first-ever symposium on ground-based astronomy. The idea was to showcase NSF's $200-million-a-year investment in the field and to shore up support for the next generation of telescopes, whose technical innovations cost a pretty penny.


    The scientists came willingly, because NSF underwrites not just their travel but also their instruments and research. “They called and we showed up,” says Charles M. (Matt) Mountain, director of the Gemini Observatory (right, the 8-meter Gemini North atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii).

    But not so the audience. A daylong symposium drew perhaps 60 people, almost all from the scientific community, and an evening lecture drew maybe twice that number. Astronomer Michael Turner, who took over NSF's math and physical sciences directorate just 1 day before the symposium, was sanguine: “It's a start. We're just trying to spread the word.”