Random Samples

Science  22 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5807, pp. 1845
  1. FROM RED TO DEAD

    CREDIT: NASA

    There has been talk for decades about replenishing the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea, between Israel and Jordan, by channeling water from the Red Sea.

    Last week, the two countries and the Palestinian Authority agreed at a meeting in Jordan to study the idea. The World Bank is rounding up donors to finance a 2-year, $15.5 million analysis of the feasibility of transferring water 180 kilometers through Jordan via a canal from the Gulf of Aqaba.

    The Dead Sea's water level is now sinking by about a meter a year, accelerated by draw-offs from its main source, the Jordan River, as well as an 80-year dry phase in the Middle East. In addition to stemming the decline, a water transfer would open opportunities for hydropower and desalination, both of which could harness the 400-meter drop between the Red and Dead seas.

    Environmentalists say the project, estimated to cost $5 billion and take a decade, would disrupt numerous ecosystems. The biggest risk is salinization of groundwater near the canal, says Boston University geologist Farouk El-Baz. But he says “it's a good idea” that could help ease political problems by boosting the economy.

  2. MONKEYS IN THE LAB

    Apes have been out-of-bounds for researchers in the United Kingdom since 1997. Will monkeys follow?

    In view of increasingly vocal—and violent—protests over using monkeys in biomedical studies, the Medical Research Council asked a group led by Oxford University geneticist David Weatherall to do a thorough assessment of the scientific value of such research.

    The report, issued last week, reaffirms the need for these primates, saying there is “a strong scientific case” for using monkeys in studies of communicable diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, as well as disparate subjects such as vision, endometriosis, and memory. The group concluded that although alternative approaches such as cell biology and noninvasive imaging hold promise, monkey experiments remain the best approach in these areas.

    CREDIT: KAREN KASMAUSKI/CORBIS

    Weatherall hopes the report will give the public some solid facts to consider. “There's a strong feeling in the U.K. that we have got to create a better public debate in this field,” he says. “It has really got to a stage of quite extreme violence.” Whether the report will cool down the U.K.'s animal wars remains to be seen. Animal activists promptly pounced on the report. And Vicky Robinson, head of a group that advises the government on reducing animals in research, said it did not go far enough in exploring alternatives.

  3. NETWATCH: At Home With Troglodytes

    The Atapuerca hills in northern Spain have been alive with the sound of picks and shovels, as archaeologists disinter the oldest hominid fossils in Europe and other important remains. Read about the history of the excavations at this site from the University of Burgos in Spain and the Atapuerca Foundation. The pages profile locales such as the Gran Dolina cavern, which has yielded 800,000-year-old skull fragments and other bones that may belong to a new human species, Homo antecessorr. For the latest dig news, check out the report on this year's finds, which include the first nearly complete human skull unearthed in the area in more than a decade. The site also features a timeline that lets you cruise through 6 million years of human evolution, pausing at milestones such as the invention of tools some 2.5 million years ago and the settlement of Europe about 1 million years ago.

    http://www.atapuerca.com/

  4. HE SAID, SHE SAID

    The use of irregular verbs such as “run” or “bring” reveals how boys and girls employ slightly different strategies in language-learning, say psychologists at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

    As tots learn new words, they tend to “overregularize” verbs—that is, apply the past tense “-ed” even to irregular ones, saying “holded” instead of “held,” for example.

    To see whether the sexes differ, Michael Ullman and colleagues analyzed transcripts of utterances by 25 children—10 girls and 15 boys—between the ages of 2 and 5. Because girls learn words faster and are more verbally fluent than boys, Ullman's team suspected that the girls would be better at irregular verbs. But they found that the girls overregularized more than three times as often as did the boys.

    By comparing how the tots handled words that sound similar, the researchers claim they could distinguish whether the children were using associative strategies or following rules in deciding verb endings. When boys overregularize, they are more likely to use rule-governed, or “procedural,” memory, the researchers report in the November issue of Developmental Science. But girls are more likely to go with associations—for example, because the past tense of blink is blinked, sink would become “sinked.”

    Harvard University cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker says that although the study is small, it adds to evidence that males and females sometimes use “different mixtures of underlying processes” to arrive at the same results. He calls regular and irregular verbs “a good model organism for contrasting the roles of computation [rule-following] with memory [association] in cognition.”

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