Random Samples

Science  03 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5838, pp. 577

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    When humans revisit the moon in the next decade or so, aeronautical engineer Dava Newman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge hopes they will be wearing one of her creations.

    Newman and her team have spent 7 years working on a suit to replace the traditional bulky, many-layered, pressurized space suit. Her idea is to apply even pressure directly to the skin by wrapping layers of cloth tightly around the body, allowing for more natural movement. Rigid supports are aligned with areas on the body that do not extend or contract with movement. The BioSuit will also be embedded with metal threads so it can be heated like a car window. If punctured by a passing meteorite, it won't deflate like the old ones but can easily be fixed by rewrapping, says Newman.

    The suit's not quite ready for review by NASA, says MIT team member Christopher Carr. The wrapping part is tricky because “it's difficult to apply the same amount of pressure to certain parts of the body, like the groin and the armpits.” Too much or too little pressure could cause swelling or cut off blood supply. Also, he notes, “the suit is difficult to get into, [and] you need two extra people to remove it.”

  2. NETWATCH: Odds-On Favorite

    Whether the subject is trends in housing sales or trials of a new cancer drug, news reports often have to grapple with applications of statistics and probability. ChanceWiki from Dartmouth College turns such items into lessons on statistical thinking.

    Originally a newsletter penned by math professors, the site now lets readers post discussions and exercises based on media stories, papers, books, and other sources. Recent contributions have investigated possible explanations for why Europeans are now taller than Americans (a reversal of the situation 60 years ago) and slammed a 2001 report that claimed Oscar winners live nearly 4 years longer than mere nominees. The longevity boost is illusory, the entry's author concludes, the result of a statistical gaffe called selection bias.




    A new study finds that monkeys prefer silence to music, suggesting that some of the acoustic preferences that underlie music are unique to humans.

    Cognitive scientists Joshua McDermott of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Marc Hauser of Harvard University put tamarins and marmosets in an apparatus with two chambers, each rigged to play music whenever an animal entered. In one experiment, the musical choices were a flute lullaby (65.26 beats per minute) and Alec Empire's electronic techno hit “Nobody Gets Out Alive” (369.23 beats per minute). The monkeys spent an average of about two-thirds of their time on the lullaby side, showing that they prefer slower tempos. But when given the choice of silence, lullabies, or a Mozart concerto, they spent most of their time avoiding music altogether. A similar experiment with eight humans showed a distinct preference for music—especially lullabies—over silence, the authors report in the September issue of Cognition.

    “The observations suggest that only humans have a natural, or innate, inclination to engage with music,” says Isabelle Peretz of the University of Montreal in Canada, who has concluded from studies of people with amusia (tone deafness) that humans have special brain pathways for music (Science, 1 June 2001, p. 1636). McDermott and Hauser—who earlier found that monkeys have no preference between harmonious and dissonant music—suggest that humans' music responses may reflect a “unique evolutionary history of selection” for cognitive processes linked to emotion and motivation.



    In Bonn this month, scientists dug up the bodies of Friedrich Schiller's wife and son in hopes of solving the “Friedrich Schiller Code”: the 180-year-old mystery of Schiller's skull.

    The poet's tomb in Weimar contains two skulls, and it isn't clear that either belonged to Schiller. When he died of tuberculosis at 45 in 1805, he was buried in a common grave. In 1826, officials tried to exhume the remains but found more than a dozen skulls. The local mayor declared that the largest belonged to Schiller, but doubts led to a second exhumation in 1911, which identified a different skull as Schiller's.

    At least four books have been written on the controversy, but now the Weimar Classics Foundation and a German TV channel are funding what is hoped will be a definitive answer. Scientists will build face reconstructions of both skulls and compare DNA samples from them and from the bones of Schiller's wife and son. If neither skull is a match, says Ursula Wittwer-Backofen of the University of Freiburg, one of the project leaders, “Herr Schiller is lost forever.”