Random Samples

Science  01 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5804, pp. 1363

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    Reading University last week became the 21st British university to announce the closure of its physics department since 1997. Despite protests from staff and students and a petition from more than 2000 researchers around the world, the university council voted on 20 November to accept no more physics students. The department will close in 2010.

    U.K. universities are largely government-funded, with the amounts determined by numbers of students and quality of research. Reading Vice-Chancellor Gordon Marshall said in an open letter that the physics department is losing about $1 million a year because it is not getting enough new students—28 this year against a target of 50—or enough research income.

    The closure of science and math departments (Science, 4 February 2005, p. 668) prompted the U.K. government last month to announce $140 million to help key departments over the next 3 years. But it won't be enough to help Reading, Marshall says. Philip Diamond of the Institute of Physics in London says economics favors big departments these days; a half-dozen now account for half of all U.K. physics students, and “small ones are just vulnerable.”



    Some whales have a specialized brain cell that hitherto has been seen only in humans and great apes—leading some scientists to suggest that cetaceans evolved their relatively advanced brains before primates did.

    Humans, chimps, and gorillas share a type of cortical nerve cell—called a spindle neuron—that is lacking in all other primates. The cells appear to connect regions implicated in higher cognitive functions to other parts of the brain.

    Neuroscientist Patrick Hof and neuroendocrinologist Estel Van der Gucht of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City have now discovered spindle neurons, in areas homologous to their location in human brains, in several large-brained cetaceans including humpback and fin whales. The researchers estimate that bigger-brained whales evolved spindle neurons 22 million to 30 million years ago. Because the common ancestor of great apes only dates to about 15 million years ago, the pair concludes that these cells must have evolved independently in apes and whales. Reporting online this week in The Anatomical Record, they speculate that whale talents such as the formation of social groups as well as singing and other communicative skills are linked to the enhanced connectivity provided by spindle neurons.

    Clever but smaller-brained dolphins don't have spindle neurons. John Allman, a neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, says the neurons are probably “adaptations that support fast communication … in very large brains.” Allman says his group is looking to see whether elephants also have the cells.



    Baby books, those little pamphlets that record baby's first steps and first words, now interest more than doting relatives. Scholars are finding the books a new source of close-up information on the early lives of infants from different times.

    Last month, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library held a reception to introduce its collection of more than 500 baby books dating back to 1884. It's a historical treasure trove that charts shifting attitudes about public health and parenthood, says archivist Russell Johnson. “A space for the father to make entries doesn't show up until around World War II,” he notes.

    The books may have emerged as part of a late-19th century public health campaign to “Save the Babies,” according to Jacqueline H. Wolf, a medical historian at Ohio University in Athens. “Baby books represented a change in cultural thinking,” she says. “Infants were not weak and susceptible, as people had long argued. Rather, infant death was preventable.”

    Russell says UCLA welcomes donations from all eras, especially because the library often battles collectors of famous children's book illustrators when copies come up on eBay.

  4. NETWATCH: Diseases on the Move

    Visitors to the new site HEALTHmap can pinpoint the latest outbreaks of more than 50 human and animal illnesses, from avian influenza to chikungunya fever, a mosquito-spread disease of Asia and Africa. Created by epidemiologist John Brownstein of Harvard Medical School in Boston and software developer Clark Freifeld of Children's Hospital Boston, the site automatically picks up and charts fresh case reports and other data from sources such as the World Health Organization, Google News, and the disease alert Web site ProMed-Mail. You can sort the information by disease and country and click on the world map to summon the original report or article.