Random Samples

Science  03 Nov 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5800, pp. 41
  1. STEAMING HOT IN THE COLD

    Russians have long been among the scientists and explorers in the Antarctic. But soon they will be among the most pampered: Early next month, the supply ship Akademik Fyodorov will set out from St. Petersburg laden with materials to build a Russian bathhouse, or banya.

    CREDIT: GREENSIDE

    The wooden structure, in which up to six people at once can wash, steam at some 90°C, and beat each other with birch boughs, will be erected on the Novolazarevskaya research base, which accommodates up to 150 people. The banya is to be made from special logs that resist moisture and drastic swings in temperature; its heavy copper roof will also withstand strong winds and deep snows. The facility is at least as much for the spirit as the flesh, says Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition: “The banya, for a Russian person, isn't just a method for washing the body. It enables you to relax, body and soul.”

  2. LEAVING BEHAVIOR IN THE LURCH

    Social psychologist Paula Pietromonaco of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, got a stellar ranking this year on a grant proposal to study whether married couples' biological and behavioral responses to stress can raise their risk for mental illness. Yet the National Institute of Mental Health decided not to fund it.

    That's been the case for all too many worthy projects since the institute decided to focus on translational research 2 years ago, some scientists say. In a new analysis requested by several lawmakers, a 14-person working group convened in 2004 by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni complains that its call for a “secure and stable home” for basic behavioral and social sciences research at NIH has been ignored (Science, 10 December 2004, p. 1878). Now, the group writes, in light of a flat NIH budget, “the field … faces the very real and devastating prospect” that many labs will be forced to shut down.

  3. DEMISE OF A BLIMP

    The USS Macon, built in 1933, was a gigantic zeppelin, or rigid airship, built by the U.S. Navy. Four times as large as modern Goodyear blimps, it could hold four biplanes. But it was also the last of four ill-fated military zeppelins: Severe weather and faulty tail fins weakened from turbulence caused it to crash into the Pacific Ocean on 12 February 1935 while returning from the Channel Islands to its base, Moffett Field near San Francisco, California. Its twin, the USS Akron, had preceded it, crashing in bad weather off the New Jersey coast in 1933. With the Macon's loss, the Navy discontinued its 14-year-old zeppelin program.

    Macon's twin, Akron, in the air. Inset, biplane's sky hook

    CREDIT: NOAA/MBARI

    Seventy-one years later, the latest underwater imaging technology has documented the Macon's burial at sea. Last month, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) conducted a 5-day expedition off the Big Sur coast to image the airship using a remotely operated vehicle equipped with high-definition video cameras. They returned with nearly 12,000 images, which they are piecing together “to produce a large poster of the debris,” says expedition co-leader Chris Grech of MBARI. The findings will be used to educate the public about a failed era in military aviation and make recommendations on how to preserve the remains for history.

  4. MIRROR, MIRROR

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF JOSHUA PLOTNIK, FRANS DE WAAL, AND DIANA REISS

    Very few creatures have the cerebral wherewithal to recognize themselves in a mirror: humans, apes, dolphins, and now—elephants.

    Joshua Plotnik, a psychology graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues put a jumbo-sized mirror in the elephant enclosure at New York City's Bronx Zoo and watched the reactions of three adult female Asian elephants. All showed signs of self-recognition: One, for example, used the tip of her trunk to explore her mouth in the mirror. Another passed the gold standard “mark test” for self-recognition, using her trunk to examine a white X painted on her forehead, the researchers reported online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Such self-awareness, says Plotnik, may be part of a more general ability to distinguish one's self from other individuals, which in turn may be needed for the altruistic behavior observed among elephants in the wild. The study “shows us that so many more species may be capable of these complex abilities if we figure out the right ways of asking the questions,” says parrot-studier Irene Pepperberg, who teaches comparative psychology at Harvard University.