Random Samples

Science  18 May 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5827, pp. 961

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    This Second Life avatar looks healthy—so far. CREDIT: LINDEN RESEARCH INC.

    Do you have an alter ego in Second Life, the booming virtual world? Watch out: Your double may catch a nasty virus someday. Scientists say introducing infectious diseases into online games could help them study epidemics.

    The idea comes from Ran Balicer of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, Israel, who was inspired by a plague that swept through the online fantasy game World of Warcraft in 2005. To spice things up, game administrators introduced an infectious disease called “corrupted blood.” It spread much faster than anticipated, in part because administrators had made virtual “pets” act as reservoirs.

    In the future, epidemiologists could work with the administrators of other games to release infectious agents—carefully choosing factors such as mode of transmission, symptoms, and possible treatments—to investigate how diseases spread and how they can be controlled, Balicer wrote in the March issue of Epidemiology. Second Life, in which millions of people chat, work, trade, play, and socialize, would be a great testing ground, he says, because it's much more like the real world than is World of Warcraft.

    Harvard University disease modeler John Brownstein says the research committee of the International Society for Disease Surveillance held a long discussion about the paper recently and wants to explore the idea. Epidemics in online games would involve decision-making by thousands or millions of real people, Brownstein says, which “adds a level of authenticity that doesn't exist in other simulations.”


    The intelligent design (ID) movement has suffered setbacks lately, but the biblical literalists known as young-Earth creationists are going strong. This month, the Institute for Creation Research, based near San Diego, California, launched the International Journal for Creation Research.

    Described as a “professional peer-reviewed journal,” the publication promises to supply “hard data based on cutting-edge research” to support theories such as “the young earth model, the global Flood, [and] the non-evolutionary origin of the species.”

    The editor-in-chief is Andrew A. Snelling, a former geologist for a uranium-mining company who has a Ph.D. from Sydney University and is now in Brisbane, Australia. According to the instructions to authors, papers will be evaluated as to whether they “are formulated within a young earth, young universe framework” and whether they “provide evidence of faithfulness to the grammatico-historical/normative interpretation of Scripture.” Snelling could not be reached for comment.

    Attempts to demonstrate a scientific basis for ID, the highbrow version of creationism, have failed in court when defenders of evolution have challenged the presentation of ID in science classes. But, notes biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University, the picture is different at the grassroots level. “Young-Earthers have always represented the bulk” of anti-evolutionists, he says.

  3. NETWATCH: Surfing the Night Sky

    Whether you're hunting for data on the M90 galaxy or just feel like a little lunchtime stargazing, drop by WikiSky. You can zoom in on more than 500,000 objects outside our solar system, including stars in the roiling Gamma Cygni nebula. Visitors can browse a whole-sky map, customize the view to show the stars above their location, or switch to photos from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is charting one-fourth of visible space. Click on an object to summon data such as its position, magnitude, motion, and distance from Earth. The accounts also furnish photos and links to abstracts of papers that mention the object. Users of the site, created by a pair of mathematicians in Canada, can contribute by writing Wikipedia-style articles on astronomy topics or posting their own heavenly shots.




    This surreal landscape shows what scientists say is the deepest hydrothermal vent ever found—4100 meters below sea level on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It's from Serpentine, a French-Russian mission that focused on the rare places where magma from Earth's mantle comes in contact with ocean water. Mission leader Yves Fouquet of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea says the team is particularly interested in the geochemistry and geology of such spots. Biologists aboard the research vessel, Pourquoi pas?, also collected samples of new life forms around these hot spots.