Random Samples

Science  13 Oct 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5797, pp. 231

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    The first-ever TV program intended for an extraterrestrial (ET) audience was sent out by the French Center for National Space Studies on 30 September from an 11-meter antenna outside Toulouse. Cosmic Connexion, produced and financed by the French-German ARTE channel, is now on its way to Errai, a sunlike star chosen because of its relative proximity to Earth (45 light-years) and because it has at least one planet. Couch potatoes in the Errai system with extremely advanced receivers will be able to tune in to the video in 2051.

    Scientists' first attempt to tell ETs about us was a 1972 plaque, containing representations of astronomy and physics as well as a naked man and woman, designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake for the Pioneer spacecraft. The duo hosting CosmicConnexion mimicked the earlier drawing by wearing only white paint. “The Pioneer couple already went into the cosmos, so they seemed like the best to send again,” says co-director Anne Jaffrennou.

    TV hosts reach out to extraterrestrials. CREDIT: COSMICCONNEXION

    The $1.2 million program includes 3 hours of photos, animations, and rock videos as well as messages from ordinary earthlings collected by the producers. Says psychologist Douglas Vakoch, who advises the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, “Even if CosmicConnexion fails to make contact with other worlds, it's guaranteed to help us get in better touch with what it means to be human.”


    Heavy rains and winds gusting up to 140 km/h severely damaged greenhouses of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines, as Typhoon Xangsane cut a swath of destruction across Southeast Asia late last month. Water flooded the homes of several staff members, causing more than $1 million in uninsured losses.


    But IRRI's R&D should emerge unscathed. “We were very lucky,” says spokesperson Duncan Macintosh. Although primary power was cut, a triple backup system of power generators maintained temperatures in IRRI's prize gene bank, home to most of the world's rice varieties. And the typhoon highlighted the virtues of an indigenous crop. While a maize test plot was “utterly destroyed,” says Macintosh, the rice “just bounced back.”


    All flowers can be classified into two shapes: those with radial symmetry, like the lily, and those, like the orchid, with bilateral symmetry. The first flowers had radial symmetry, but the more complex bilateral form has evolved in many species, suggesting that it is favored by natural selection.

    A team led by José Gómez of the University of Granada in Spain tried to find out why by studying 300 plants of the herb Erysimum mediohispanicum, which has the very rare trait of producing flowers with either radial or bilateral symmetry. The team measured the three-dimensional shape of each flower using a technique called geometric morphometry, relying on 32 landmarks on petals and corolla. From thousands of observations, they determined that most visits by pollinators were made by a small beetle. Statistical analysis revealed that the flowers with bilateral symmetry were more popular with the beetles. The bilaterals were also more fit, producing more seeds and progeny over the 2-year study, the team reports in The American Naturalist this month.

    Two forms of Erysimum mediohispanicum. CREDIT: JóSE GóMEZ ET AL.

    Risa Sargent, a plant evolutionary ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says Gómez and his team “make a strong case for a link between plant fitness” and bilateral symmetry. Next job: Find out the mechanism. The team speculates that the bilateral flowers offer a better “landing platform” for pollinators.


    The birthplace of the cell phone and countless other high-tech innovations has been saved from the wrecking ball.

    A developer was planning to raze the former Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, New Jersey, to make way for new office buildings. But when researchers got wind of the plan, they bombarded the company, Preferred Real Estate Investments Inc. in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, with e-mails. And more than 100 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including a dozen Nobel laureates, signed a letter to the governor, the mayor, and the developer, urging the preservation of the 44-year-old building designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen.

    The campaign worked. Last month, Preferred announced that it will refurbish the original 50,000-square-meter building, with its glass facade and transistor-shaped water tower. “These are smart people, and we sat up and listened to them,” says Preferred spokesperson Scott Tattar.

    Although the building will remain as office space, Bell Labs' best and brightest dispersed long ago, after the government-ordered breakup of the AT&T monopoly in 1984, notes Nobelist Douglas Osheroff of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California: “The real crime is that Bell Labs itself wasn't preserved.”