Random Samples

Science  11 Aug 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5788, pp. 741
  1. READY FOR TAKEOFF?

    Flying car in ground mode.CREDIT: TERRAFUGIA

    In 1940, Henry Ford confidently predicted that “a combination airplane and motorcar” was just around the corner. Sixty-six years later, a company founded by three Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) grads claims to be close to delivering on the automaker's promise.

    Last month, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company Terrafugia took its wind-tunnel-tested and computer-simulated air-car plans to the annual Airventure air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Called the Terrafugia Transition, the two-passenger vehicle, which would be the size of a large sport/utility vehicle, now exists in one-fifth-size scale models.

    The company promises that a Transition driver/pilot could drive to the airport, unfold the 8-meter wings at the push of a button, and take off without lifting the wheels. Driven by a propeller in the rear, the vehicle is supposed to be able to fly up to 800 kilometers on a tank of automobile gas, going at 190 km per hour at a cruising altitude of up to 4200 meters.

    Company founder Carl Dietrich and colleagues say they rethought the problem as one of “making a plane that can drive” instead of the usual “car that can fly” approach. MIT aeronautical engineer John Keesee (who has no ties to Terrafugia) says that the company hasn't come up with anything revolutionary, but “they've put together a lot of maturing technologies,” such as a fiberglass and composite fuselage, “that have the capability to make it all work.”

  2. RULER LAID LOW BY GOUT

    Radiograph of fingertip.CREDIT: NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE (2006)

    The mummified fingertip of Charles V of Spain testifies to the half a lifetime of pain endured by one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages.

    Charles V, Holy Roman emperor from 1519 to 1556, reputedly suffered from painful gout starting at the age of 28. This limited his ability to travel and to write and caused him to give up the throne at the age of 56. He died at 58 and was buried near El Escorial monastery in San Lorenzo. Before being entombed, one of his pinky fingertips was cut off and preserved as a religious relic.

    To verify what ailed the emperor, a team led by Pedro Fernández, a pathologist at the University of Barcelona, persuaded church officials to turn over a piece of the relic. Using an electron microscope, they found that the flesh was infiltrated by needle-shaped crystals of uric acid, typical of gout. By the end of his life, Charles's finger joints were probably destroyed by crystal-packed growths known as gouty tophi, the team reported in the 3 August New England Journal of Medicine.

    “The evidence is totally convincing,” says Philip Mackowiak, a pathologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. The emperor, he notes, was very fond of meat and drink, which exacerbate the condition, but it could also stem from the lead used at the time to preserve wine and to line water pipes.

  3. OMINOUS BEAUTY

    CREDIT: RENAE BAKER 2006

    These nacreous clouds, photographed over Australia's Mawson Station in Antarctica on 25 July, are a lovely sight, but they bode ill for the ozone layer. So named because they resemble the inside of a mother-of-pearl shell, nacreous clouds have taken on new significance over the past few decades as levels of the pollutant chlorine have increased. These ice clouds form in the −90°C cold of the Antarctic winter. They contribute to the ozone hole by triggering chemical reactions that process chlorine into a form that can destroy ozone once the first sunlight strikes in the spring.

    This year, says ozone researcher Paul Newman of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, temperatures are unusually low out toward the expected hole's periphery. Because the destructive reactions are ultimately cold-dependent, that may portend a larger-than-average hole this year, he says.

  4. SCIENTIST COMPLETES HAPPYMAP

    CREDIT: ADRIAN WHITE/UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER

    Close-up of an unhappy region, with White's rankings. The first world map of happiness is here. By analyzing data from more than 100 different studies, psychologist Adrian White of the University of Leicester, U.K., has created a picture of global well-being. Denmark was number one, followed by Switzerland and Austria. African and former Soviet bloc countries emerged as the most miserable.

    Surveys about people's satisfaction with life were analyzed in conjunction with data on health, wealth, and access to education. Health correlated best with well-being, says White, who hopes his project will be helpful as governments have shown increasing interest in the concept of happiness.

    Economist Paul Dolan of Imperial College London cautions that it is difficult to compare happiness between countries. People in Asia, for example, consistently report less happiness than do those in South America—possibly because of differing cultural values placed on happiness. For a clickable world map, go to www.le.ac.uk/pc/aw57/world/sample.html.

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