Random Samples

Science  28 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5773, pp. 507
  1. FROM COAL TO THE STARS

    CREDIT: THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY

    A section of the Ruhr district in northwestern Germany, once one of the most heavily industrialized areas in Europe, is being turned into an astronomy park. Below is Europe's first “horizon observatory,” slated to rise on a rehabilitated slag heap, part of a former coal mine.

    The artificial hill in the otherwise flat landscape provides a rare unobstructed view of the horizon, says Daniel Brown of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, who presented the plan earlier this month at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in Leicester, U.K. Fifty meter-high arches will help visitors orient to compass points, allowing them to observe how the sun and moon move with the seasons.

    The observatory is part of a 140-hectare park being built around the slag heap by a group of astronomers, teachers, and private citizens, with support from the European Union. Already open is a giant sundial featuring an 8.5-meter obelisk. The park is scheduled for completion by the end of 2007.

  2. DEDICATED TO THE WORD

    A man with epilepsy has supplied compelling evidence for an area in the brain dedicated to processing written words as entities, rather than letter by letter.

    The region known as the visual word form area (VWFA) lights up when individuals read words, but its role has been controversial because it's also activated by faces or objects. Neuroscientists led by Laurent Cohen of the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in Paris tested a man with severe epilepsy who was about to have a small area near the VWFA removed. Prior to the surgery, the man took 600 milliseconds to read common words. Scans and electrodes showed that the VWFAwas activated when he read words, whereas different areas lit up when he named objects from pictures.

    After the surgery, the patient could still identify objects quickly. But he took a full second to read a three-letter word. For every additional letter, his response time increased by about 300 milliseconds, suggesting he was reading letter by letter, the researchers report in the 20 April issue of Neuron.

    Brain scans confirmed that the VWFA, disrupted by the surgery, no longer lit up at the sight of words. “It seems to be indispensable only for reading,” Cohen says. Cognitive neuroscientist Alex Martin of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, says the study offers “compelling and dramatic evidence” for a reading node in the brain. But he's mystified at the existence of such a specialized area for a task invented only 6000 years ago.

  3. WORKING TO THE BONE

    CREDIT: EDWARD S. CURTIS/COURTESY DARTMOUTH COLLEGE LIBRARY

    Arikara rush-gatherer.

    In the Arikara tribe, which lived along the Missouri River in the Dakotas between the 14th and 19th centuries, the women did all the farming. Historical accounts relate that they produced so much corn by the 1850s that they had fat surpluses for trade.

    Now Arikara bones have furnished direct testimony about their lives. Daniel Westcott of the University of Missouri, Columbia, and Deborah Cunningham of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., examined between 95 and 160 pairs of male and female arm and leg bones from a period spanning nearly 4 centuries. They measured indications of mechanical load, including the area of the weight-bearing cortex and how bone cross sections departed from circularity.

    The study, to appear in the July Journal of Archaeological Science, found that as agriculture intensified, women's leg bones changed. By the late 1700s, their left legs showed signs of having borne greater loads, which the authors suggest stemmed from “pushing off” on the left leg while working the fields. Anthropologist Christopher Ruff of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says this makes sense. “Lower limbs tend to be ‘right dominant’ in things like kicking a ball, but the left is used to stabilize the body, which is actually more stressful biomechanically.”

    While the women were in the fields, the men were developing a different asymmetry, the authors report: Their right arms became larger, probably as they relied increasingly on rifles rather than bows and arrows, which put stress on both arms.

  4. THE SUPERWIRED

    The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the academic world's biggest node by far in terms of Internet connectedness, according to a new ranking devised by Peter Hirst, a Boston-based science and technology consultant. Hirst took the first 300 from a ranking of 500 top universities produced annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China and, using about a million Google searches, counted the number of Web pages linking to each university from the other 299. He came up with a new metric, the “G-factor.”

    Of the top 20 on the G-factor scale, the only non-U.S. institutions are Cambridge and Oxford universities and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. For more information, go to http://www.peterhirst.com/