Random Samples

Science  26 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5739, pp. 1322

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  1. Bees for Van Gogh


    An ecologist and an artist have collaborated in a fanciful project exploring bees' response to paintings of flowers.

    Behavioral ecologist Lars Chittka of the University of London and artist Julian Walker designed an experiment that involved showing bumblebees several famous paintings, one of them Van Gogh's Sunflowers, in order to “provoke thinking” about differences in visual perception between bees and humans and the reasons the two species are attracted to flowers.

    Whereas people see three basic colors—red, yellow, and blue—bees see blue, green, and ultraviolet. The researchers put a nest of bees that had never been exposed to flowers in a lab together with four paintings and then counted how many times the bees approached or landed on them. Van Gogh's Sunflowers proved most attractive. Of 146 approaches, 17 were to the blue “Vincent” signature. The painting also got the most landings: 15, compared with four each for two colorful nonflower paintings. A preference for blue was seen in all the bee landings, presumably because blue flowers “offer high-nectar rewards,” the authors reported online last week in the journal Optics & Laser Technology.

    The study is “consistent with what is currently known about bee physiology and behavior,” says vision researcher Adrian Dyer of La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia. “Bees do have innate color preferences for blue flowers and for spatial features that are flowerlike.”

  2. Money Can Buy (Some) Happiness

    “Men do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men.” So said philosopher John Stuart Mill about 150 years ago. Now sociologists are chiming in with a study showing that money buys happiness—as long as it puts people ahead of their peers.

    Many surveys have shown that more money doesn't necessarily translate into more happiness. Glenn Firebaugh, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and Harvard grad student Laura Tach devised a method to try to zero in on the relationship. Mining 30 years of survey data on well-being, they sorted some 20,000 working-age Americans by income and then by whether they thought of themselves as “very,” “pretty,” or “not too” happy. The data also covered age, health, marital status, education, race, work status, and gender, so the researchers were able to compare individuals with otherwise similar profiles.

    Firebaugh and Tach concluded that money makes people happiest when they have more of it than those in their bracket. But it's not as important as health or marriage, they reported last week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia. Economist Richard Easterlin, who studies income and happiness at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, calls the study a “thorough, painstaking analysis.”

  3. Video Wars


    The rocketing popularity of computer games has ratcheted the video-violence debate up to new levels. Last week, the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D. C., adopted a resolution calling on makers of video games for youth to reduce violence levels. “A review of research shows that playing violent video games can heighten aggression,” APA trumpeted in a press release.

    However, the first long-term study of online video game playing fails to support that premise. Conducted by Dmitri Williams, a speech communication professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the study involved 75 people of both sexes, mostly young adults, who spent 56 hours over the course of a month playing “Asheron's Call 2”—a game with lots of fantasy violence—in their homes. Players as well as 138 control subjects had their attitudes and argumentative behaviors tested before and after the trial. There were “no strong effects associated with aggression caused by this violent game,” says Williams. “Given that the finding was opposite the APA's predictions, I think this should remind us how little we know about this medium.” The study appeared in the June issue of Communication Monographs.

    Yale psychologist Dorothy Singer, a member of the group that proposed the APA resolution, believes the results of short-term laboratory studies, which indicate temporary increased aggressiveness after gameplaying, are convincing. They indicate “an effect size the same as smoking and cancer,” she says. “This has to be taken seriously.”

  4. 100 Gigabases and Counting

    This week, the number of nucleotide bases in the world's three major databases—at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in the U.K., the DNA Data Bank of Japan, and GenBank—topped 100 billion, about equal to the number of nerve cells in a human brain, a National Institutes of Health press release points out.

    The three databases share data every night, enabling scientists to instantly assess whether a DNA sequence has already been discovered. There's just one problem, says EBI bioinformaticist Ewan Birney. The databases, which have been doubling in size every 14 months, “are still growing faster than our computing capacity.”

  5. Campaigns


    Groundswell. A new grassroots lobby group, modeled on the Democrats' Moveon.org, has joined the stem cell advocacy landscape. StemPAC was launched last month by 38-year-old John Hlinko, who worked on Wesley Clark's failed attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. So far, there's one scientist among the group's advisers: neural stem cell researcher Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California. “We're just starting to reach out to other scientists,” says Hlinko.

    Hlinko says he's not worried that his partisan background might alienate some members of his target audience, pointing out that support for the cause comes from both sides of the aisle. He claims that the group has already had an impact by preparing a TV ad scolding Senate Majority Leader and presidential hopeful Bill Frist (R-TN) for failing to allow a vote on legislation to expand the number of stem cell lines available to federally funded researchers. He thinks that the ad, which would have run in New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary, played a role in convincing Frist to back the legislation (Science, 5 August, p. 858).

  6. Deaths


    Star figure. Astrophysicist John Bahcall, whose idea of studying the sun by measuring the number of solar neutrinos reaching Earth paved the way for fundamental discoveries in astrophysics and particle physics, died from a rare blood disorder in New York City on 17 August. A professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, and former president of the American Astronomical Society, Bahcall was 70.

    In 1964, Bahcall and Raymond Davis Jr. laid the foundations for neutrino astrophysics by proposing that the number of neutrinos reaching Earth could shed light on the sun's characteristics. Experimental observations by Davis later showed a discrepancy between Bahcall's predictions and the number of neutrinos detected, which kicked off a 3-decade effort to solve the “solar neutrino puzzle.” The answer was that neutrinos have mass and switch between different particle states.

    “Always generous with his time, John Bahcall was an inspirational teacher and mentor who shaped the careers of a generation of scientists,” says IAS Director Peter Goddard.

  7. Money Matters


    Profit sharing. A microbiologist has pledged at least $105 million to New York University (NYU) School of Medicine from royalties for a blockbuster drug that he helped invent.

    Jan Vilcek, 72, says the school took a chance when it hired him 40 years ago, after he and his wife fled Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia using a weekend pass to Vienna. In the late 1980s, Vilcek led a team at NYU in developing a novel antibody that became the basis for Remicade, which treats arthritis and Crohn's disease.

    NYU has already received a portion of the gift from Vilcek, who has been receiving royalties since Centocor began selling the drug in 1998. Another portion will flow to the school in quarterly payments tied to sales, which last year reached nearly $2 billion. The money from the gift, to be paid over 13 years, will support new faculty, fellowships for graduate students, and research equipment.

  8. Misfortunes


    Amazon tragedy. An American archaeologist and anthropologist whose research suggested that pre-Columbian people in the Amazon practiced sustainable development and conservation was killed on 13 August during a research trip to the region.

    James Petersen, chair of anthropology at the University of Vermont in Burlington, was shot to death during a restaurant robbery in a small rainforest town in Brazil where he had been doing fieldwork. Police are holding three suspects, according to an Associated Press report.

    Petersen's South American research was revolutionary, challenging a long-held belief that the Amazonian environment couldn't sustain complex societies, says University of Vermont anthropologist John Crock. His wide-ranging fieldwork also included sites in the Caribbean and in northeastern New England.

    Petersen “wasn't Indiana Jones, out for fame and fortune,” says anthropologist Michael Heckenberger, a former student now at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “You couldn't ask for a better colleague, mentor, or friend.” He was 51.

  9. Explorers

    Cold sweat. Three Polish researchers narrowly escaped from an approaching pack of hungry polar bears last week in the Arctic, according to an Associated Press report. The men had set out from the Polish research ship Horyzont in a small inflatable boat to pick up equipment from one of the islands in Norway's Svalbard Archipelago, about 1000 km from the North Pole. When their boat capsized in rough seas, they swam to the island of Edgeoya. The trio started a fire and kept the bears at bay for several hours until rescue helicopters arrived.