Random Samples

Science  11 Jun 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5677, pp. 1592

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  1. Communications Merger


    It's SYNFACE—a computer-generated talking face that “listens” to speech coming down a phone line and repeats it for deaf telephone users to lip-read. This British-Swedish collaboration is just one of the multidisciplinary research projects being folded into the new Centre for Human Communication at University College London (UCL) that was officially launched last week to foster collaboration among fields as diverse as psychology, child health, engineering, and computing.

    Phonologist Moira Yip, co-director of the new center, says the fields of speech, language, and communication are “exploding” because of advances in genetics and brain imaging and an “increasingly multicultural world.” For instance, cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott wants to work with phonologists to find out why Mandarin Chinese speakers seem to use more of their brain when listening to their native language than do English speakers. In another cross-disciplinary project, researchers at UCL are comparing language acquisition in normal children and those with language disorders using theoretical linguistics, measurements of brain activity, and genetic analysis.

  2. Turkey Lore

    Brush turkey chick robot.


    How do you know how to find your mates if you grow up alone and don't have a mirror? Such is the dilemma of the Australian brush turkey, which hatches buried in a warm mound of rotting leaf litter.

    “Megapodes are the only birds in the world that don't incubate their eggs, so they don't have any chance to learn from their parents what a conspecific looks like,” says Ann Göth, a behavioral ecologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Females lay eggs in the compost, then leave the incubation up to the heat from the decomposition.

    To find out what visual cues a newly hatched chick uses, Göth and colleagues made remote-control brush turkey robots out of toy car motors and the skins of dead chicks. They then presented live chicks with a choice of robots. The chicks found a pecking imposter more attractive than either a still robot or one turning from side to side. And when ultraviolet light was filtered out, the chicks lost interest even in pecking robots, suggesting that they recognize both specific movement patterns and color, the scientists report in the 1 June Journal of Experimental Biology.

    Megapodes are an exception to the dogma that birds “imprint,” or learn their identity from parents while the nervous system is still at an impressionable stage, says Mark Hauber, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: “This is the first example of a bird in which imprinting is not even theoretically feasible.”

  3. Another Mersenne

    Prime number hunters have bagged yet another record-holder. On 28 May, a collaboration of about 75,000 number enthusiasts around the world announced the discovery of a 7-million-digit prime, the largest yet found of this breed of numbers that are divisible only by themselves and 1.

    The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) is a loose collaboration of devotees who use surplus computer power to search for Mersenne primes, which have the form 2p - 1. The latest discovery, 224,036,583 - 1, is the 41st such prime and the seventh found by GIMPS since it was founded in 1996.

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digitally oriented civil liberties group, has offered a $100,000 prize to the discoverer of a 10-million-digit prime. Prime hunters now appear to be within striking distance of the pot of gold. The last new Mersenne, found in 2003, was 6 million digits long.

  4. Consider the Pollinators

    Bee bottom has hairs that pick up pollen.


    What do bees, hummingbirds, wasps, bats, and butterflies have in common? They're all North American pollinators, essential for the smooth running of agriculture from Idaho alfalfa (pollinated by leaf cutter bees and honeybees) to Mexican agave (pollinated by fruit bats), without which we would have no tequila.

    But populations of many pollinators are crashing, researchers say. Even the commercially cultivated honeybee's U.S. population declined by half between 1940 and 1995, due to pesticides and parasites.

    Hence the Great Pollinator Partnership, which unfurled 26 May on a terrace at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. A series of 12 potted gardens—each catering to a particular pollinator —will be on display until 11 October. Rodney Brown, a deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the exhibit helps dramatize the magnitude of pollinators' role in agriculture: “The European honeybee alone adds $14 billion a year to U.S. crops.”

  5. From Paper to Practice


    After 13 years as editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Richard Smith is leaving to become head of the European arm of a U.S.-based health care company.

    Smith, 52, will link up with Simon Stevens, who is stepping down as British Prime Minister Tony Blair's senior health policy adviser, to run the new subsidiary of the UnitedHealth Group. The company will help the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS) in providing patient care by commissioning at-home care for elderly patients and improving data management for clinicians and health care managers.

    Smith says the new company aims to strengthen the NHS by helping it coordinate health care services, although critics see Blair's reforms as a step toward privatizing British health care. “There's a danger that the NHS could fail, … and I think this will help keep it alive,” he says. Smith, who is also chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group, hopes to start in September at the as-yet-unnamed company, which will be based in London.

  6. Awards


    Making the cut. The popularity of kung fu has translated into the newest million-dollar science prize.

    Hong Kong film mogul Run Run Shaw (left), who made a fortune by producing a string of kung-fu action movies, established the $1 million prizes in astronomy, mathematics, and life and medical science “to help the development of science in Asia,” according to the Shaw Prize Foundation. The first winners are:

    • James Peebles of Princeton University, for contributions to theoretical and observational cosmology;

    • Shiing-shen Chern of Nankai University in Tianjin, China, for his role in developing global differential geometry;

    • Stanley Cohen of Stanford University and Herbert Boyer and Yuet-wai Kan of the University of California, San Francisco, for discoveries related to DNA cloning and polymorphism;

    • Richard Doll, now retired from the University of Oxford, U.K., for work in cancer epidemiology.

    The winners will be honored at a ceremony in Hong Kong in September.

    Nemmers prizes. A Russian-born mathematician and an Israeli economist have each won a $150,000 Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

    Mikhael Gromov, a professor at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in Bures-sur-Yvette, France, and the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University (NYU), receives the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics for his contributions to modern geometry. Ariel Rubinstein, an economist with appointments at Tel Aviv University and NYU, wins the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics for his work on game theory.

    Established with an endowment from Erwin Nemmers, a former management professor at Northwestern, and his brother, Frederic, the two prizes have been awarded every other year since 1994. The university plans to begin awarding a third Nemmers prize in musical composition next year.

  7. Honors

    Two steps back. Four women are among 44 new fellows elected by the U.K.'s Royal Society. The number reflects a sharp drop from last year's total of nine women but is consistent with the size of previous classes.

    The new female fellows are cell biologist Caroline Dean, chemical engineer Lynn Gladden, chemist Carol Robinson, and neuroscientist Nancy Rothwell. Marine biologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University in Corvallis is the lone woman among the six foreign members elected this year.

    The list of fellows is at www.royalsociety.org/news.

  8. Jobs

    Star power. Hollywood's longtime lobbying mogul has signed up to fight infectious diseases around the world. Jack Valenti, outgoing head of the Motion Picture Association of America, announced last week that he will become part-time head of Friends of the Global Fight, a new nonprofit dedicated to increasing U.S. funding for the $10 billion Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Science, 29 June 2001, p. 2420).

    Valenti, 82, is a legendary power broker who has spent 4 decades as Hollywood's feisty defender in Washington, D.C. Now, he says he wants “to do my small part in turning back this awful tide of death and despair.” First up: persuading Congress to add $1 billion or more to the $600 million it has contributed so far to the fund, which is struggling to raise cash. Paul Zeitz, head of the Global AIDS Alliance in Washington, calls Valenti's move “fantastic news. … He's got the cachet and the access.”