Random Samples

Science  21 Jul 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5785, pp. 279

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    Even when males and females perform equally well at computer programming, the two sexes comprehend the job in different ways, according to a Canadian research team.

    Anthony Cox, a computer scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and his colleagues challenged 30 graduate or undergraduate computer science students—15 male and 15 female—to take a 300-line Java program that emulates a calculator and make specified changes—such as altering the color of a button—that required the students to find and alter relevant chunks of code.

    Both sexes performed equally well, but questioning afterward revealed differences in strategy. Men were more likely to find their way through “codespace” by forming a mental overview of the computer program, whereas women tended to navigate by landmarks whose location they knew.

    The authors say the men's “top-down” approach relies more on spatial visualization and is also more “risky” because it involves making educated guesses. That jibes with research showing that men are more risk-tolerant, Cox says, adding, “because of that, the men will gamble and work at a higher level of abstraction.” The results will appear in Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance in September.

    Psychologist Nora Newcombe of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, notes that spatial visualization seems to be a key to getting around in codespace, just as in physical space—where men and women also tend to use different strategies. But Diane Halpern, a psychologist at Claremont McKenna College in California, says, “I don't think the data really support” the claims about risk-taking, because the study did not directly measure risky behavior. Cox says a follow-up study will include such measures.



    Late last month, the last of the so-called W-56 warheads from the legendary Minuteman missile (pictured) was finally dismantled by the government. In 1963, the appearance of the W-56's, the first intercontinental nuclear warheads, ratcheted up the Cold War a notch; more than 1000 were soon poised to strike the Soviets. The warheads were shelved in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush. But with the end of the W-56 comes another era, as the United States is currently designing new nuclear weapons that last longer than those of Cold War vintage.



    One hundred fifty years ago this summer, workers mining limestone in a cave in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany, found 16 unusual bones. First thought to be the remains of a diseased victim, scientists later determined that they had belonged to a separate species of early human, which they named Neandertals.

    This week, as part of anniversary celebrations, Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, announced he is teaming up with genome sequencing company 454 Life Sciences Corp. in Branford, Connecticut, to try to sequence the entire genome of a 45,000-year-old male Neandertal whose bones were found in a cave near Zagreb, Croatia. Although such old samples contain DNA that is heavily degraded, improved technologies have made it possible to sequence and piece together tiny fragments of DNA. Edward Rubin of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California is working on a parallel project, using different sequencing technology.

    Other anniversary commemorations include a new exhibit at the Neandertal Museum in Mettman, Germany, where visitors can see an artist's 3D conceptualization of the original find (above)—and see what they themselves might have looked like as a Neandertal (right).


    “We're literally at the breaking point for some of the demands we're placing on our investigators. … I sometimes have to threaten withholding compensation in order to get physician-scientists to comply with all the various regulatory demands being placed on them.”

    —Leo Furcht, chair of the University of Minnesota's Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, at a meeting on updating guidelines for stem cell research, held on 6 July at the National Academy of Sciences. At the meeting, some expressed concern about adding new layers of oversight on already-burdened researchers.