# Random Samples

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

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.”