Random Samples

Science  13 Jan 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5758, pp. 155

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    Hurricane refugees trying to sleep in Arizona. CREDIT: AP

    Researchers launched a massive telephone survey this week of Hurricane Katrina survivors, collecting data for what they hope will be an unprecedented close-up of the health and mental health of thousands of people still weathering the aftermath of the disaster.

    Harvard Medical School and the National Institute of Mental Health, with $1 million from the National Institutes of Health, are working together on the project, called the Hurricane Katrina Advisory Group Initiative. At a 5 January press conference, the project's director, Harvard epidemiologist Ronald Kessler, said the survey was a “unique” initiative that will involve repeated telephone interviews with 2000 people—half from the New Orleans area and half from the hurricane's path in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Names will be gathered from Red Cross and other aid lists as well as from random dialing of 250,000 numbers to find displaced people. “We've got to beat the bushes all around the country,” said Kessler.

    The baseline interview will be 2 hours long—“They want to talk to us,” Kessler noted—and everyone will be contacted again for shorter follow-up interviews every 3 months over 2 years so researchers can “keep our fingers on the psychological pulse of this population.”

    Reports will be posted, starting in late February, on the project Web site (www.hurricanekatrina.med.harvard.edu). The survey is designed to give instant guidance to policymakers and will include answers to a question about the “three top things” that respondents think need to be done to improve matters.

    Kessler said there are reports of depression, anxiety, excess drinking and smoking, and an increase in suicides among people uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. Psychologist Anthony Speier, director of disaster operations in Louisiana's Office of Mental Health, said the prolonged displacement is taking its toll: “From reports, the level of anxiety is increasing, not decreasing.”

  2. World of the Dodo

    Reconstruction of dodo environment. CREDIT: JULIAN PENDERHUME

    It wasn't long after Dutch colonists settled on the island of Mauritius in the 17th century that the hapless dodo was driven extinct. Since then, dodo researchers haven't had much to work with other than a handful of composite skeletons in museums and anecdotal reports from early mariners. Last month, however, a Dutch-Mauritian team of scientists reported the discovery of a rich deposit of dodo bones on the island. “It's of vital importance,” says paleontologist Julian Hume of the Natural History Museum in London, who has joined the group to study the bones. “More has been written about this bird than practically any other, yet we practically know nothing about it.”

    The bones were found last October after archaeologist Pieter Floore assembled a team, including scientists from the University of Mauritius, to reconstruct the prehistoric environment of the island. The researchers came upon a mass of bones in a marshy section of a sugarcane plantation. “I had the feeling that we found one every 10 minutes. … [It] was amazing,” says Kenneth Rijsdijk, a physical geographer with the Geological Survey of the Netherlands. By studying the cores drilled from the marsh, the researchers intend to reconstruct the ecology and environment in which the dodo lived at least 2000 years ago.


    European and Russian life expectancies, 1970–2000. CREDITS: WHO

    The Russian economy will continue to take a terrific beating from population decline and falling life expectancies, according to two reports issued last month.

    The financial losses could amount to some $400 billion over the next 2 decades, estimates a Russian business lobby group, Delovaya Rossiya. Industrial growth is already being crippled by shortages of workers, whose numbers are likely to drop by 3.6 million over the next 5 years, the group finds.

    That warning echoes findings by the World Bank, whose report Dying Too Young relates that since 1990, Russia's population has fallen from roughly 150 million to 143 million, in large part because of deaths from premature heart disease, accidents, and alcoholism. With fertility rates constantly declining in the climate of prolonged economic uncertainty, the report predicts that the country's population could drop another 20 million by 2025. “Short, brutal lives for Russia's men” mean that their life expectancy, which at 58 is the lowest in Europe, could plummet to 53 if current trends hold.


    “My dangerous idea is one that most people immediately reject without giving it serious thought: School is bad for kids. It makes them unhappy, and as tests show, they don't learn much. … Just call school off. Turn them all into apartment houses.”

    —Psychologist and computer scientist Robert Shank, one of 117 deep thinkers who have so far responded to this year's annual New Year's question by the Edge Foundation: “What's your dangerous idea?” (http://www.edge.org/)