Random Samples

Science  03 Jun 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5727, pp. 1406

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  1. Arms and the Man


    Swinging swords around for hours on end left its mark on the bones of Medieval soldiers. In fact, their right arms resemble those of baseball pitchers, according to researchers at the University of Bradford in the U.K.

    Forceful, repetitive movements make bones bend and thicken in response to the stress. So anthropologists Jill Rhodes and Christopher Knusel reasoned that Medieval swordplay should have produced skeletal distortions. They looked at the excavated skeletons of 10 men who had died of sword wounds between the 10th and 16th centuries. The right arms showed changes in shape and thickness similar to those found in professional baseball pitchers, Knusel says. “Swinging a sword is very, very similar [to pitching]. It's an overhead type of motion,” he says. The changes weren't seen in nine uninjured male skeletons in the same York cemetery, they reported in last month's American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

    The authors also reported on 13 skeletons buried in a mass grave after the Battle of Towton in 1461. These men showed different changes: Their left arms were bent and thickened. Knusel says the skeletons may be the bones of archers who held their powerful longbows with their left arms.

    Kelly DeVries, a specialist in Medieval military history at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland, says this technique should be useful in the emerging study of battlefield archaeology. It could help sort out the archers from the swordsmen, or the knights from the casual soldiers, he says.

  2. Color: In the Eye of the Beholder?

    Humans everywhere appear to recognize the same six basic colors—black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue—regardless of their language, according to new research.

    Some scientists think color perceptions are shaped by language because cultures divvy them up in different ways: In some New Guinea tongues, for example, there are just two color groups (light and dark), whereas other languages have more than a dozen. Some languages don't distinguish between blue and green.

    Linguist Paul Kay of the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California, and colleagues tested people's color sense by asking 2700 speakers of 110 different languages to name and sort 330 differently colored chips, grouping them according to color terms they knew and then picking the best examples of each category. The subjects tended to gravitate to the six colors regardless of the categories used in their languages, suggesting that people classify color according to universal visual principles, the researchers reported online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    But Debi Roberson, a psychologist at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, says that doesn't end the debate. There were many exceptions, she says, and there wouldn't be if colors were truly universal.

  3. A Puzzling Protist


    The biggest example yet of a single- celled foraminiferan has been found in 100-million-year-old marine rocks near the coast of northern California. Foraminiferans are members of the protist family: hard-shelled relatives of the amoeba. Most are microscopic or nearly so. But some taxa, which exist today in deep-sea environments, can grow to a relatively colossal size.

    This latest find beats them all. The fossil shell is 143 millimeters long, and the live protist may have been as large as 175 mm. Micro-paleontologist William Miller of Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, says it's still a puzzle how and why this species (Bathysiphon aaltoi) got so big. It grows by building a hard tubular shell from particles such as sand and sponge spines lying around on the seabed. In the current issue of the journal Neues Jarhbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie Monatshefte, Miller, whose team found the specimen last year, suggests that it must have had unique adaptations not shared with other protists, such as multiple nuclei to cope with the business of sporting such a large shell.

  4. Where the Winds Are

    North American wind spots. Two Stanford University researchers have put together a global “wind map” that pinpoints areas around the globe that are well suited for wind power. After analyzing wind speed measurements in some 8000 locations, hydrologists Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson conclude that wind could generate power equivalent to 35 times current global electricity use.

    Good locations are far more common than previously thought, says Archer. “If you randomly pick 10 locations in the world, one or two of them will be suitable for wind power generation,” she claims. Two such areas are the south and southeast coasts of the United States. Northern Europe also has a lot of prime wind spots. Unfortunately, the authors relate, the developing world has few such spots. Exceptions are some sites in Vietnam, the Caribbean islands, and the southern tips of Chile and South Africa.

  5. Jobs


    Googling the universe. The challenge of scanning the heavens with a powerful telescope has lured a top computer expert from Google. Wayne Rosing, vice president of engineering at the Internet search engine, has left the company after 4 years to work as an unpaid adviser on the proposed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project at the University of California, Davis.

    The telescope will use its 8.4-meter mirror to sweep the entire visible sky every three nights searching for signs of hidden dark matter and transient objects such as asteroids and gamma ray bursts. Managing its 30 terabytes of data each night poses a “wonderful engineering problem” similar to what his team faced at Google, says Rosing. He will help devise data-analysis strategies for LSST's scientists and engineers.

    “The sheer boldness and scale of this project is just extraordinary,” says Rosing, 58, who was captivated by the telescope's potential after meeting its director, J. Anthony Tyson. In years past, Rosing designed and constructed a robotic camera for an ongoing sky survey based in Chile and founded the Las Cumbres Observatory near Santa Barbara, California, for astronomy education and outreach.


    Who's left? The start of a second presidential term is traditionally a time for job reshuffling. But the past 6 months have seen an unusually high turnover rate at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), with five senior managers moving to greener pastures.

    The two most recent departures, announced last week, involve new postings for longtime government hands. Neuroscientist Kathie Olsen (right), associate director for science since 2001, has been nominated to be deputy director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). She would replace engineer Joseph Bordogna, who came to NSF in 1991. And astronomer William Jeffrey (above), who has handled national and homeland security issues for the past 3 years, has been tapped to head the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST has had an acting director since Arden Bement moved to NSF in February 2004.

    Olsen's shop has recently lost two veteran civil servants. Rachel Levinson left this spring to set up a Washington, D.C., office for Arizona State University's new Biodesign Institute. And Cliff Gabriel decamped in January for the Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, Brett Alexander, who handled space issues, left in January to handle government relations for the start-up Transformational Space Corp. in Reston, Virginia.

  6. Awards


    Congratulatory call. Former Motorola chief Robert Galvin, who turned the company into a technology powerhouse and fueled the growth of the cell phone industry, last week received the Vannevar Bush Award for lifetime contribution to the nation in science and technology. Founded in 1980, the award is given every year by the National Science Board (NSB).

    Galvin began working for Motorola in 1940 and became its chief executive officer in 1959. Under his stewardship, the company developed semiconductor technology for applications in computer-controlled two-way radio communications for public safety, national defense, and space exploration. Galvin also served on many panels advising the government on science and technology policy, including the Special Commission on the Future of the National Science Foundation in the early 1990s.

    NSB also honored the winners of its public service awards last week: science journalist Ira Flatow and the Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research.

  7. In The Courts

    Painful memory. Stephen Jay Gould's widow has sued three Boston doctors for not noticing a 1-centimeter tumor in his lung that ultimately led to the death of the noted evolutionary biologist 3 years ago.

    In the suit, filed 20 May in Middlesex Superior Court in Massachusetts, artist Rhonda Roland Shearer says oncologist Robert Mayer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, gave Gould a “clean bill of health” 15 months before his death even though the tumor was visible in an x-ray taken at the time. The radiological report, prepared by two radiologists who worked at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said the lungs were clear. Although the suit doesn't quote a settlement figure, Shearer estimates the loss from Gould's death to be several million dollars. “He had uncommon talents and uncommon income,” says her lawyer, Alex MacDonald. Shearer plans to use a portion of any damages collected to create a free Web site of her husband's writings and notes, “as Steve would have done.”

    A Dana-Farber spokesperson says the suit is “without merit.”