Random Samples

Science  23 Nov 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5854, pp. 1221
  1. BRAINS OVER BRAWN

    CREDIT: FABRIZIO EUSEBI

    How does Tiger Woods's brain behave before tapping the ball for a long putt? Neuroscientists from the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and from the Italian Olympic Committee's Institute of Medicine and Science of Sport in Rome are applying electrodes to expert golfers to find out why their games are so hot. Twelve right-handed golfers donned helmets that recorded their brain waves while they putted on a green in the lab.

    Alpha waves, caused by rhythmic changes in the electrical activity of certain brain cells, usually fluctuate at frequencies of 8 to 12 cycles per second (Hz). High-amplitude alpha waves reflect a relaxed waking state, the brain's “idling” mode. When a golfer swings, alpha waves tighten up, decreasing in amplitude. “We noted that high-frequency alpha waves (10–12 Hz) over frontal motor areas were smaller in amplitude in the successful putts,” says physiologist Claudio Babiloni of Sapienza University. The greater the amplitude reduction—reflecting the intensity of focus on the task—the closer the putt got to the hole.

    The scientists, whose results are published online in The Journal of Physiology, say they see similar patterns in gymnasts, karate practitioners, and fencers. Fabrizio Eusebi, head of research at the Sport Medicine Institute, says golfers might be able to improve both their relaxation and concentration using video games. “It sounds like a promising and useful path to me,” says professional golfer and trainer Gianluca Crespi. “Scientists keen on golf have been, so far, more interested in rehabilitation of joint-muscular function than enhancing players' cognitive skills.”

  2. STAR WARS

    Astronomy student Michael Gruberbauer (left) and colleague at astrology protest. CREDIT: MICHEL BREGER/UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA

    Astronomers in Vienna, Austria, last week clashed with astrologers at a demonstration against an astrology course offered by WIFI, an education institute funded by the city's Chamber of Commerce.

    The 6-month course amounts to “government support for pseudoscience,” says Michael Gruberbauer, an astronomy grad student at the University of Vienna. The astrologers, some of whom tried to shout down the researchers, countered that they have the right to study whatever they want. WIFI spokesperson Barbara Wichart said that “astrology is a recognized trade” like others for which courses are offered—including computer programming and secretarial work—and noted that the 135 enrollees are paying $2800 each for it.

    “This is not just a local problem,” says protest organizer Günter Wuchterl of the Tautenburg Observatory in Germany. “Astrology degrees are already offered at some U.K. universities, the largest astrology organization in Germany has stated that it wants to invade academia, and now Austria has fallen under their spell.” For the duration of the course, astronomers are offering weekly public lectures at Vienna's Kuffner Observatory to explain astrology's “fundamental problems,” says Wuchterl. “This is like offering a course for installing sewer pipes through which water cannot flow.”

  3. DO THE MATH

    Cutting up in class and ignoring the teacher get you in trouble but won't necessarily hurt your academic performance, according to a study covering more than 16,000 children.

    An international team recently reanalyzed data from six longitudinal studies of schoolchildren in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The study sifted through evaluations of children's conduct starting at about age 5 through grade school and correlated them with later grades and test scores.

    Assumptions that “social and emotional development” are as important as cognitive skills don't hold water, the authors report in the November issue of Developmental Psychology. Instead, most predictive of “later learning” was “knowledge of numbers and ordinality.” That was more significant than reading ability and even trumped “attention skills.”

    Lead author Greg Duncan, an economist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, says the “biggest surprise” was to discover the relative unimportance of social training. Duncan says preschool programs should consider “channeling more resources” into helping children understand numbers and letters. Psychologist Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania State University says the data don't support that interpretation: “My big worry is that people will say we should be having preschoolers do flash cards.”

  4. OLDEST MURAL FOUND IN PERU

    CREDIT: IGNACIO ALVA/REUTERS/LANDOV

    This wall painting, which shows a deer being hunted with nets, is the oldest mural yet found in America, according to archaeologists in Peru. It's part of a 4000-year-old pre-Incan mud-brick temple, named Ventarrón, in a desert area on the north coast. The leader of the expedition that found the mural, Walter Alva, is director of the nearby Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum in Lambayeque.