Random Samples

Science  25 Nov 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5752, pp. 1274
  1. Two Views Better Than One?

    The demand by intelligent design (ID) proponents to teach the scientific “controversy” about evolution riles most scientists. But a new study suggests that including ID materials in biology classes may help open minds to evolution.

    During the fall of 2003, 103 freshman biology majors at Central Washington University in Ellensburg were divided into four sections. Two, taught by biologist Steven Verhey, learned arguments for both ID and evolution, with readings from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker and Icons of Evolution by ID proponent Jonathan Wells. The other two read only Matt Ridley's The Red Queen, about the evolution of sex and human nature.

    At the end of the semester, 66 of the students agreed to take an anonymous survey in which they classified their beliefs before and after the course into six categories, ranging from biblical literalism to atheistic evolutionism. Verhey reports in the November issue of BioScience that 61% of the respondents exposed to both ID and evolution indicated a change of mind, as opposed to 21% in the control sections. The great majority of shifters moved toward evolution. For example, four of six in the experimental group who identified themselves as biblical literalists moved in the “rationalist” direction, Verhey reports.

    The study provides “powerful evidence” that directly engaging students' beliefs, rather than ignoring them, may be an effective way to teach evolution, writes biologist Craig Nelson of Indiana University, Bloomington, in an accompanying editorial. But he agrees with evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago that this strategy wouldn't be appropriate for high school students, who, says Coyne, “are not intellectually equipped to deal with such [a] controversy.”

  2. Fight or Flight


    Anger is better for your health than fear, say researchers. The two emotions are generally lumped together when it comes to stress-related health risks. But psychiatrist Jennifer Lerner of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and colleagues have devised a way to sort them out through analysis of facial expressions.

    The researchers studied 92 subjects who counted backward and did math problems while an experimenter verbally harassed them. To determine the participants' emotions during testing, the researchers used a system that tracks facial muscle movements known to be correlated with fear or anger.

    Measurements taken during the testing showed that blood pressure and saliva levels of the stress hormone cortisol went up in all participants expressing fear from the unreasonable pressure. But those physiological responses were much less pronounced among those whose faces indicated anger instead, the researchers reported in last month's issue of Biological Psychiatry. This makes sense to Lerner: Whereas fear implies loss of control, anger suggests that action can be taken, she explains.

    Because it's hard to trust the emotions described by a participant under stress, Lerner says, the facial-analysis technique has “enormous potential for getting a window on emotion.” Correlating facial expressions with biological responses to stress is “really cool,” says psychiatrist Reginald Adams of Pennsylvania State University, University Park. “It's such a versatile tool. It's going to open up some very exciting directions for future research.”

  3. Flying Noses


    Wasp in training.

    Hunting for dead bodies or hidden explosives? A tube of wasps may be the answer for both types of unusual searches. In the wild, the tiny parasitic wasp Microplitis croceipes can smell not only nectar but also airborne chemical signals from plants being eaten by its host caterpillar.

    Entomologist W. Joe Lewis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service found he could train the wasps to link many scents with a sugar-water reward. But “you can't put a wasp on a leash and take it around” like a bomb-sniffing dog, he says. So engineer Glen Rains of the University of Georgia, Tifton, designed a portable “Wasp Hound”: a device outfitted with a fan that pulls air through a cartridge holding five wasps. When they catch a whiff of a target scent, say, 2,4-dinitrotoluene from explosives, they crowd around the air holes, looking for a reward.

    In a recent test using five different smells, the device far outperformed an electronic nose and was as good as a dog, the researchers report in an upcoming issue of Biotechnology Progress. But wasps are cheaper than bloodhounds and need only 5 minutes of training, Lewis says. Now, Rains and Lewis are working on a mass wasp-training regimen and on new applications including finding dead bodies from scents such as cadaverine and putrescene.

    Bees are also joining the olfactory workforce. Bee specialist Mathilde Briens, of Inscentinel in Harpenden, U.K., says they're working on a system in which bees stick out their tongues in response to a scent.

  4. Awards


    Qubits for dollars. Quantum computing guru David Deutsch is the first recipient of the $100,000 Edge of Computation Science Prize for researchers whose computer-related ideas touch on broader questions about life, the universe, and everything.

    The 52-year-old Deutsch, at the University of Oxford, U.K., provided the first blueprints for a universal quantum computer in 1985, bringing to life an earlier suggestion from physicist Richard Feynman. Quantum computation, which theoretically is exponentially faster than classical computing, could potentially speed up calculations that currently hamper fields such as physics, biology, and nanotechnology.

    “Deutsch clearly deserved the prize because of his seminal role in creating and furthering quantum computation,” says physicist and computer scientist Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was a judge. But it's an unusual reward that transcends disciplines; other nominees were from fields of computational biology, software development, and communications, he notes. “I'll be very interested to see who wins it next,” says Lloyd.

    The prize is funded by philanthropist Jeffrey Epstein.

  5. On The Job

    A green NSF. The National Science Foundation's system of hiring “rotators”—academics who take a few years' leave to work at NSF—seems to be spinning out of control. The problem: So much new blood threatens to leave the agency with little institutional memory at the top.

    By next summer, it's possible that only one of the agency's seven research directorates will be headed by someone with even 1 year of experience on the job. Last month, Michael Turner, head of mathematics and physical sciences, announced he would be returning to the University of Chicago in the spring. And this month, NSF is convening search committees to find successors for engineering's John Brighton, who left this summer, and computer sciences' Peter Freeman, who next spring completes a 3-year stint. A search to replace education's Judith Ramaley, now president of Winona State University in Minnesota, has dragged on for more than a year, with Don Thompson filling in since January.

    NSF Director Arden Bement has recently filled two slots: Jim Collins came on board last month to succeed longtime biology head Mary Clutter, and David Lightfoot arrived in June to lead the social, behavioral sciences, and economics program. That leaves only geosciences' boss Margaret Leinen, who came to NSF in 2000, with significant time in her position. Bement is also sifting through applicants to fill two other senior posts: the heads of international affairs and legislative/public affairs.

  6. Movers


    Magnetic draw. The promise of constructing a high-field magnet from a new type of superconductor is shifting the landscape among superconductivity experts. Researchers at the Applied Superconductivity Center (ASC) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, announced last month that they're moving their operations to Florida State University in Tallahassee, which is also home to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. About 22 ASC members will relocate by July 2006, forming a materials research division of the magnet lab.

    Physicist David Larbalestier (left), one of ASC's leaders, cites the growing promise of a metallic superconductor called MgB2 that could be used for making more powerful magnets that work at warmer temperatures than traditional metallic superconductors.

    Bob Hawsey, who runs the superconductivity program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, says the move is a big loss for the University of Wisconsin, which has been home to ASC for more than 20 years.


    Leaving the garden. Saying that great institutions need “a regular infusion of new ideas and energy to stay at the top of their game,” paleobotanist Peter Crane announced last week that he will step down after 7 years as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. Next summer, he will join the geophysics department at the University of Chicago.

    Before Kew, Crane was director of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, for 7 years, and he says he's looking forward to working with an “enormously strong group of paleontologists” in a city where his wife, Elinor Hamer Crane, grew up. Kew, which last year attracted a record 1.35 million visitors, acquired a new molecular mycology lab and became a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site during Crane's tenure.

  7. They Said It

    “Twenty-eight billion dollars is a lot of money. It's ridiculous to ask for more given all the problems the country is facing. The question is how to spend it.”

    —Steven Heinemann, president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience, on whether biomedical lobbyists should be trying to boost the president's request for only a $146 million increase in 2006 for the National Institutes of Health.

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