Random Samples

Science  10 Oct 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5899, pp. 171

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    Want to grab lunch at the Restaurant of the Future? Fine—if you're okay with your entire visit being videotaped and analyzed by scientists. The new restaurant, set up by Wageningen University in the Netherlands and three companies specializing in food, software, and kitchens, is actually a laboratory where researchers can study eating and drinking behavior. Casino-like ceiling cameras track your every move, and a hidden scale surreptitiously weighs you before you dig in. Lighting, furniture, and even the ambient odor can be changed to create different moods.

    The place, which officially opened on 4 October, also boasts a sensory research lab in which researchers can measure how people look at, choose, chew, and swallow food. The information can help companies refine their products and lead to new strategies to promote healthier eating, says René Koster, director of the “Restaurant of the Future” research foundation. The setup is an excellent way to study consumer behavior under natural circumstances, says food psychologist Brian Wansink of Cornell University, who runs a similar research restaurant called the Spice Box in Urbana, Illinois. “I've gotten tremendous value out of it,” Wansink says—including much of the material in his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.


    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been engaging in a lot of hand-wringing about the aging of the biomedical research workforce. But it turns out not everybody is unhappy: AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) has just named NIH one of the best employers for workers over 50. The first federal agency to make the list, NIH ranks 11th after employers such as Cornell University and Blue Cross Blue Shield. The average age of NIH's extramural principal investigators is 51, and their intramural counterparts average a venerable 54.

  3. 3, 7, 31, AND COUNTING ...

    Prime numbers—numbers divisible by only themselves and 1—are the “atoms” of mathematics. Mersenne primes, of the form 2P - 1 (where P is itself a prime), are special because of the computational and theoretical challenges they pose. It's not known, for example, whether the list of Mersenne primes goes on forever or if it stops at some largest exponent.


    At the moment, Mersenne primes are piling up slightly faster than the overall trend would predict. The far right point on this graph was found 23 August by computers at the University of California, Los Angeles, running algorithms from the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS). It corresponds to exponent P = 43,112,609 and weighs in at 12,978,189 digits. That makes it the winner in a contest by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which put up $100,000 for the first known prime with 10 million digits or more. The previous record, found 2 years ago, fell just short at 9,808,358 digits.

    Computers in Langenfeld, Germany, came in 2 weeks too late for the big prize, finding the next Mersenne prime, with exponent P = 37,156,667, on 6 September.

    The computations to verify primality get exponentially harder as the exponent increases, but GIMPS is relying on exponential growth of the Internet to keep pace. One of the next few Mersenne primes may reel in the next EFF prize: $150,000 for a 100-million-digit prime.


    The Roman city of Herculaneum perished along with Pompeii when the 79 C.E. eruption of Vesuvius buried it under 20 meters of volcanic ash. Now, visitors can immerse themselves in a virtual-reality Herculaneum with the opening of the Museo Archeologico Virtuale (MAV), the first Italian virtual archaeological museum, on the site of the old city.

    Created by engineer Gaetano Capasso, MAV includes more than 70 multimedia installations, including 3D screens and holographic projections. Its heart is the “cave,” a room that features simulations of entire environments such as a room, theater, or garden. There is also a reconstruction of a Roman bath with real steam, where visitors can breath in the warmth and scent of ancient perfumes and gaze at holographs of women bathing. They can also don electronic gloves that let them dip fingers in a virtual fountain and feel the surfaces of virtual mosaics and fabrics.

    The museum is the last word in virtual reality, says Derrick de Kerckhove, former director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto in Canada. “No archaeological reconstruction has gotten deeper technological and artistic attention than this,” he says.