Random Samples

Science  10 Jun 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5728, pp. 56
  1. Cetacean Culture?


    Baby dolphin with nose sponge. Researchers have long known that dolphins are smart. But a new study showing that dolphins use sponges as tools suggests that they have culture as well. If correct, it would be the first unambiguous demonstration that a marine mammal can transmit information from one generation to the next.

    For the past 20 years, marine scientists have been monitoring a population of more than 850 bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia. A small subgroup has been observed breaking sponges off the bottom and wearing them over their snouts, apparently to probe into the sea floor for fish. A team led by evolutionary geneticist Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and including researchers from Australia, Canada, and the United States, obtained genetic data from tissue samples taken from 185 of the dolphins, 13 of whom were spongers. The team reports in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the 13 spongers, all but one of them female, are closely related to one another and probably share a recent ancestor.

    The team considered two alternative explanations: Either sponging was a genetically determined behavioral trait, or mothers were passing on the sponging tradition to their daughters. But an exhaustive analysis of genetic data from the 13 spongers and 172 other dolphins, which considered 10 possible ways the behavior could be inherited, including through sex chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA, came up empty-handed. That left cultural transmission as the only viable hypothesis, Krützen's team says.

    Psychologist Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, U.K., who has studied culture in chimps and orangutans, calls the research “an exciting addition to the catalog of what we can be increasingly confident are culturally transmitted forms of tool use in nonhuman populations.”

  2. Go With the Flow


    Who says operations research and financial engineering can't be beautiful? Princeton students Warren B. Powell and Belgacem Bouzaiene-Ayari put together this graphic, one of the winners of Princeton's first annual Art of Science Competition, from a “dynamic asset allocation” problem in freight transportation. It's part of a “stochastic, dynamic programming model … for stochastic, integer multicommodity flow problems,” they explain. (See more winners at http://www.princeton.edu/artofscience/gallery

  3. Heavenly Art


    Cosmonaut Alexander Polischuk interacts with a sculpture in the Mir Space Station in 1993. Art in space got its launch in 1969, when Apollo 12 carried a postage stamp-sized tile of tiny drawings, including an Andy Warhol rendering of a penis. “We are regularly solicited by artists to send pieces into space, or for astronauts to perform something,” says Dieter Isakeit of the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands, who oversees European users of the international space station. But ESA's approach to choosing projects has been haphazard, he admits.

    Now ESA has signed a $90,000 contract with Arts Catalyst, a London-based organization, to consult with artists on how they might make use of the space station and astronaut training facilities. ESA favors projects that “change the states of mind of more people, or make more people happy,” Isakeit says. Sending artists themselves into space costs too much, he says, but one idea floating around would involve exposing astronauts to “different sounds that induce the idea of infinity.”

    Artist-performer Ricky Seabra, who has proposed a module for art and performances on the space station, says “space is not a realm for science alone.” And the artist's realm is not art alone either: Seabra plans to apply for astronaut training.

  4. Jobs

    Fresh start. A longtime academic with an interest in health policy is the new head of research at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Washington, D.C.

    Cardiologist Joel Kupersmith, 65, succeeds Nelda Wray, who left in late 2003 amid charges of corruption and intimidation. The VA inspector general later confirmed that Wray had mismanaged nearly $1.7 million in VA funds (Science, 2 April 2004, p. 29).

    Since Wray's departure, VA research has “gone from mismanaged to rudderless,” says virologist Douglas Richman of the VA San Diego Healthcare System and the University of California, San Diego. “What we really need is someone who is both administratively competent and a proponent of research.”

    Kupersmith, a former medical school dean at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and most recently a scholar in residence at the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Institute of Medicine, has pledged to evaluate grants fairly and fund the “best possible research.”


    Oncology umbrella. Oncologist David Khayat has been named director of France's new National Cancer Institute. The $125 million institute, inaugurated last month in Paris, will try to stitch together what Khayat calls “very, very divided” efforts in cancer research, prevention, and care. It's one of 70 initiatives in a 5-year cancer plan announced 2 years ago by French president Jacques Chirac.

    Khayat comes from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and was a driving force behind the 2000 World Summit Against Cancer. “He is an excellent choice,” says David Kerr, director of the National Translational Cancer Research Network in the United Kingdom. “He enjoys widespread support among clinicians, basic researchers, politicians, and patients, and he can move very gracefully between all those constituencies.”

  5. Deaths


    In harmony. Seismologist Keiiti Aki never strayed far from his favorite subject. After a 38-year-long research career in the United States, he retired to Réunion Island, east of Madagascar, home of an active volcano that generated many earthquakes for him to study. On 17 May he died at the age of 75.

    Although his work on the concept of seismic moment as a measure of earthquake magnitude may be his best-known contribution, Aki applied a quantitative rigor to understanding everything from great earthquakes to seismic imaging of Earth's interior and the crackle of moving magma.

    “He had a profound view of the Earth,” says seismologist Thomas Jordan of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, “and a deep respect for the harmony and poetry of the natural world. Much of what we know about large earthquakes follows from his work.”

  6. Pioneers


    A perfect fit. Wayne Daniel's fascination with building geometrically symmetrical objects began 40 years ago while making a tetrahedral kite for his son. Since then, the former General Motors physicist has spent countless hours crafting three-dimensional puzzles.

    The 78-year-old Daniel's latest creation is a set of the five platonic solids—the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron—nested one inside the other. Daniel modeled the puzzle on a computer, using classical algebra and geometry to optimize the dimensions of each solid, and then fashioned its 41 interlocking wooden pieces with a table saw and glue. “It was both a theoretical and a woodworking challenge,” says Daniel, who lives in a house that he designed in Genoa, Nevada.

    Daniel has patented some of his puzzles, which are used in schools to teach algebra, trigonometry, and geometry. His next challenge is designing a puzzle based on the surface of a soap bubble, a shape he finds aesthetically pleasing.

  7. Awards

    Building capacity. An Indian physicist and a Brazilian biologist are the inaugural winners of a prize for scientists in developing countries.

    Tiruppattur Ramakrishnan, a theoretical physicist at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, will receive the Trieste Prize from the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (formerly the Third World Academy of Sciences) for his work on phase transitions and the localization of electrons in disordered systems. Pharmacologist Sergio Henrique Ferreira of the Medical School of Ribeirão Preto in Brazil is being honored for research that has led to development of new classes of antihypertensive drugs and analgesics. Each winner receives $50,000.

    Future awards, made annually, will honor work in a variety of fields, including math and agricultural sciences.

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