Random Samples

Science  02 Mar 2007:
Vol. 315, Issue 5816, pp. 1199
  1. ETS SPIES LITERACY TROUBLE AHEAD

    CREDIT: NALS

    Literacy in the U.S. workforce is eroding and will continue to do so at least through 2030, according to the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in a gloomy report issued last month.

    The economy is becoming more knowledge-intensive—only about 10% is now manufacturing-based compared with one-third in 1950. But workers are getting less literate—defined by the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), in part, as “using [English] printed and written information to function in society.” The uneducated immigrant population is growing: Hispanics, who have the lowest high school graduation rate (50%) of any group, will go from 14% of the population to 20% in 2030. And according to U.S. Census projections, 60% of the Hispanic working population is expected to remain foreign-born, says ETS's Kentaro Yamamoto.

    Hopeful trends are hard to find, says the report. High school graduation rates for both Hispanics and African Americans peaked in 1969. And college attendance among these minorities has been “stagnant” for more than a decade. ETS labels the confluence of economic and demographic factors “a perfect storm [which] continues to gain strength with no end in sight.”

  2. NUCLEAR HAZARD HAS A NEW FACE

    CREDIT: IAEA

    After a 5-year, $200,000 search, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, has picked a red triangle showing a person fleeing from a skull and bones while being showered with wobbly rays.

    A new symbol was needed, says Carolyn MacKenzie, an IAEA radiation source specialist, because no one gets the yellow trefoil anymore. She says tests in 11 countries found that “people do not know what the trefoil stands for.” The old symbol will remain on containers and the entrances to radiation facilities. But the new one will go on dangerous items the public is commonly exposed to, such as food irradiators, radiation sources for cancer treatment, and x-ray units.

  3. NETWATCH: The Nano Beat

    This new series of podcasts from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, is definitely for the small-minded. Small Talk offers monthly programs on the present and promise of nanotechnology for a general audience. Hosted by a physicist and a science writer, the shows feature conversations with scientists, artists, and other nano nabobs.

    Already on the record is IBM researcher Donald Eigler, who in 1989 became the first person to manipulate individual atoms, arranging them to spell out “IBM.” And chemist James Tour of Rice University in Houston, Texas, chats about the nanocars and other minute vehicles his team has designed. No wider than a strand of DNA, the machines might be able to truck around atoms during, for example, the manufacture of computer chips. The podcasts will run at least through May, with future programs delving into nanotech products already on the market, nanomedicine, and other topics.

    www.nisenet.org/publicbeta/podcasts

  4. WHALE SENSING

    CREDIT: GIANNI PAVAN

    Research on cosmic neutrinos has led to the discovery of a sperm whale hot spot in the Mediterranean.

    The Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics plans to build a giant neutrino detector, called NEMO, 3500 meters deep off the coast of Catania, Sicily. Ordinary detectors look for the elusive Graphicerenkov-light signature. But in 2005, Italian physicists decided to test a new method: acoustic sensing. They deployed an array of four sensors off Sicily to see whether background noise is low enough to allow for acoustic detection.

    As it happens, sound frequencies of interest for neutrino detection overlap with those from sperm-whale and dolphin calls. So marine biologists from the University of Pavia piggybacked a sea mammal-monitoring experiment on the array. The ensuing log, which is still being analyzed by both biologists and physicists, indicates hundreds of sperm-whale transits per year over an area of about 1000 square kilometers—far more than have been supplied by visual sightings. Scientists are thrilled with the new tool. Cruise-based missions provide data from only a small time window, points out Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara of the conservation agency ACCOBAMS. “We still don't know how many whales live in the Mediterranean,” he says. “But listening posts like this would be great for monitoring their seasonal movements.”