Random Samples

Science  17 Dec 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5704, pp. 2036

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  1. Deliver Us From Evil


    Anxiety producer.

    Reminding voters of their mortality may induce them to lean toward a charismatic leader, a new study suggests.

    Sheldon Solomon, a psychologist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, and colleagues asked 95 college students to write answers to anxiety-producing questions such as “What [do] you think will happen to you as you physically die?” Another 95 were asked to write about their next important exam. Then all subjects were asked to vote on campaign statements by three politicians: one emphasized the nation's greatness and victory over evil, one focused on interpersonal cooperation, and one emphasized achievement of specific goals.

    The task-oriented candidate got a plurality of votes in both groups. But 30% of the subjects who had been thinking about death voted for the charismatic leader, compared with only 4% of the controls, the authors report in the December issue of Psychological Science. Solomon says the results support an element of terror-management theory: that when confronted with the threat of death, people manage their fears by becoming more aggressive and choosing powerful leaders.

    Daniel N. McIntosh, a social psychologist at the University of Denver, Colorado, says he was “struck by the magnitude of the effect,” although he adds that the difference between the two groups might have been less if subjects had had other outlets to express their anxiety.

  2. Robbing Peter to Pay Phil


    Peterson and pork defender.

    Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog that lets us know each February how long winter will last, came to Washington, D.C., last week to defend some pork: a congressional appropriation of $100,000 for a new weather science museum in his Pennsylvania hometown.

    Advocates for the museum claim it would be the first to explore “the science and folklore of weather prediction.” Representative John Peterson (R-PA), author of the earmark, sees the center, scheduled to open in 2006, as a boon to the economically depressed region.

    But opponents of such earmarks say projects like Phil's are taking money from more legitimate pursuits. The Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center (weatherdiscovery.org) is funded from the same pot that funds NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation (NSF). It still needs another $500,000 to build and display exhibits. Jayme Organ, the museum's only full-time employee, says the National Science Foundation is a logical source—“but I've heard that they are cutting back because of a tight budget.” NSF's 2005 budget was cut by 2%.

  3. Race and Immunity

    Here's another log to stoke the race-and-medicine debate. Variations in genes that regulate inflammatory responses may help explain why blacks and whites seem to have different susceptibilities to some disorders, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    The team, headed by epidemiologist Roberta B. Ness, took DNA samples from 179 African-American women and 396 white women who had undergone prenatal care and normal deliveries at a Pittsburgh hospital. The scientists evaluated the samples for variants of genes that encode inflammation-regulating proteins—called cytokines—that are secreted by the immune system. The African Americans were significantly more likely, by ratios of up to 5 to 1, to carry four genetic variants known to increase the inflammatory response, the researchers report in the 1 December issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. They also had more of the gene variants that dampen the release of anti-inflammatory proteins—“kind of a double whammy,” as Ness put it.

    The researchers point out that inflammation is a common element in a host of conditions—heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease, as well as premature labor, transplant rejection, and certain autoimmune disorders—that disproportionately affect blacks. Molecular biologist Joel Buxbaum of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, who studies mutations associated with heart disease, says that the study is interesting but that it would be useful to know if the genetic variations correspond with actual cytokine levels.

  4. Conservation Cliffhanger


    Things are not looking good for the Po'ouli (right), one of the most endangered of Hawaii's native birds. On 26 November, the only individual in captivity died, apparently of old age. Only two more are thought to remain in the wild, and they haven't been seen since February.

    One of the 15 species of endemic honeycreeper that still survive in Hawaii, the Po'ouli was discovered in 1973, when it had an estimated population of 200. The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project has been trying to find the two known remaining birds in the rugged Hanawi Natural Area Reserve. But after a 9-day search, researchers returned last week empty-handed. They aren't even sure of the sex of these two birds, which are at least 7 years old—not a good age for captive breeding. Nonetheless, “we haven't given up hope entirely,” says ornithologist Kirsty Swinnerton, who plans to return to the reserve next February.

  5. Awards


    Historical honor. Scott Gilbert has won the 2004 Alexander Kowalevsky Medal from the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists “for extraordinary achievements in comparative zoology and embryology.” Gilbert, a developmental biologist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, is author of the popular textbook Developmental Biology and currently studies the evolutionary origins of the turtle's shell.

    The award was established in 1910 to honor the Russian embryologist and early Darwinian who first showed the close evolutionary relationship between vertebrates and tunicates, small sea creatures with a primitive backbone. The first medal wasn't awarded until 2001, however, and its monetary value—a professor's yearly salary in 1910—is now about $8.75. “It only makes the academic honor more valuable,” Gilbert says.

    Riding a wave. A childhood fascination with gyroscopes has paid off handsomely for Aaron Goldin, a senior at San Dieguito High School Academy in Encinitas, California. Goldin won first place—and a $100,000 scholarship—in the individual category of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition last week for inventing a wave-powered generator based on a gyroscope.

    Exposed at an early age to tinkering by his father, Goldin set out to use a gyroscope to convert the rocking motion of waves into electricity and eventually produced a toaster-sized prototype that cranks out 0.8 watts—enough to power radio transmissions from a buoy or life raft. Goldin hopes the device could be scaled up to become a source of renewable energy.

    “The ingenuity is quite remarkable,” says Scott Miller, a judge and cell biologist at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

  6. Jobs

    Team effort. Geologist Arabinda Mitra has been named the first executive director of the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum. The 4-year-old forum, funded by both governments and based in New Delhi, has sponsored workshops on genomics, brain research, and high-performance computing and next month will host 100 young American and Indian scientists for a 3-day meeting in Bangalore. “The forum is perfectly placed for a solid takeoff under Mitra's leadership,” says Norman P. Neureiter, co-chair of the forum and director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy in Washington, D.C., at AAAS, which publishes Science.


    Tennessee bound. Paul Gilman, who stepped down 2 weeks ago as head of science at the Environmental Protection Agency, has a new gig as the first director of the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies.

    The Tennessee center was conceived in 2000 when the University of Tennessee and Battelle won a bid to manage the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As part of the deal, the two hooked up with other regional universities to launch a think tank focusing on science and policy issues. Although plans are still in flux, Gilman says he envisions a resident scholar program with teams working on topics from nanomedicine to energy and transportation: “The hope is to bring researchers from various sciences together with policy analysts.”

    A formal rollout is planned for next month. “I'm sure [Gilman] will turn [the center] into something terrific,” says James Reisa, who directs the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology at the National Academies, where Gilman had served previously as director of life sciences and agriculture.

  7. Deaths

    Math giant. Shiing-Shen Chern, who revolutionized the field of differential geometry and became one of the central figures of modern mathematics, died on 3 December at his home in Tianjin, China. He was 93.

    Born in China and trained in Germany before coming to the United States, Chern developed a set of algebraic principles, later called Chern classes, that helped bring geometry out of the two-dimensional world and played a fundamental role in string theory. Chern co-founded the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982 and won the U.S. National Medal of Science as well as the Wolf Prize in mathematics.

    “He was a towering figure in 20th century mathematics,” says longtime colleague and Berkeley mathematician Calvin Moore, who also recalls his “uncommon kindness and generosity.”

  8. SARS War Memorial


    China has no animal-rights movement to speak of. But its scientists still think about the sacrifices made by their research animals. The latest memorial sits on the lawn at the Animal Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, a tribute to the animals that gave their lives to develop a vaccine against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

    The “Soul-Consoling Stone,” as it is named in Chinese, was installed in spring 2003, not long after SARS swept through Asia. Qin Chuan, a pathologist and head of the institute, says the monument is only now being publicized because of promising early vaccine trials (Science, 17 December, p. 2021). Qin says she hopes the stone will remind people of the contribution of mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, and monkeys to human health. “After all,” she says, “human beings or animals, we are all Nature's creatures.”