Random Samples

Science  31 Oct 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5902, pp. 655

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    Psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire, U.K., last week unveiled what they are billing as “the world's most relaxing room.” The 160-square-meter space, bathed in green lights with an artificially lit blue sky, is furnished with soft mats and lavender-scented pillows “to create a relaxing environment with no sense of threat,” explains the project's mastermind Richard Wiseman.

    The design is based on research on the effects of light, scent, and music in relaxation. “Cold colors such as blue and green tend to be perceived as calming, whereas warm colors can be perceived as arousing,” explains Birgitta Gatersleben, an environmental psychologist from the University of Surrey in Guildford, U.K. Lavender is said to reduce anxiety and induce sleep by lowering the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The room also features specially composed music with a slow, steady beat and low-frequency tones.

    So far, the room's 200 visitors have given it mixed reviews. “Some people absolutely love it and can't have enough of it,” Wiseman says. “But people who thrive on and need stress to work absolutely hate it.”

    The project was designed to be easy to replicate in offices and other real-life environments. “I would like to see relaxation rooms in public spaces,” Wiseman adds. “If we pay 20p to use a toilet in King's Cross train station, why not pay for 20 minutes of peace?”


    A new seed bank, occupying vaults under China's Kunming Institute of Botany, opened this week in Yunnan Province. The Southwest China Germplasm Bank of Wild Species, a joint project of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the U.K.'s Kew Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP), will preserve seeds from some 4000 species of endemic Chinese plants, including many threatened species.

    This is especially important for Southwestern China, which is “increasingly under threat from agricultural and industrial development,” says Hugh Pritchard, head of research at MSBP.


    Take a $2.50 hand-cranked eggbeater, remove one rotor, and you've got a centrifuge that can help health workers diagnose diseases in poor countries, Harvard University chemist George Whitesides and colleagues write in a paper published online this month in the journal Lab on a Chip. Some diagnostic tests—such as for hepatitis B—use plasma, the liquid component of blood. Plasma is usually prepared by removing cells from the blood in a centrifuge, but such machines are expensive and use electricity.


    So the Harvard team put 100 milliliters of blood in a short piece of very thin polyethylene tubing, sealed both ends by melting them over a candle flame, and taped the tube to the eggbeater's rotor. When cranked at a comfortable speed, the contraption separated cells from plasma in about 10 minutes. Very little plasma is required for most tests, so a few minutes of “beating” is usually enough, says co-author Malancha Gupta. Furthermore, you can tape as many as 20 samples at time to the rotor.

    The idea isn't entirely new, says Bart Knols, a malaria researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands; one previously proposed centrifuge was inspired by a children's game involving spinning a button with threads.


    At a time when some developed nations are paying citizens to bolster flagging birth-rates (Science, 30 June 2006, p. 1894), a grass-roots group of scientists and environmentalists is calling for a new push to limit human numbers.

    Overpopulation is threatening life as we know it on the planet, say members of a movement called Global Population Speak Out (http://gpso.wordpress.com/), which aims to persuade at least 50 “respected voices” to “speak out in some way” about the problem for a month next year.


    “The hope is to concentrate these informed researchers' messages about population during the month of February so we can make a bit of a dent in this taboo” surrounding the subject, says the movement's organizer John Feeney, an environmental writer in Boulder, Colorado. Global population, now at about 6.7 billion, is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, says Feeney, and that's the United Nations' “medium” projection.

    So far, Feeney says 46 people have pledged to speak out or endorse the movement, including botanist Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis; Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel; and entomologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb. Although some of Ehrlich's most dire predictions haven't come to pass, others—namely, mass extinctions, as well as horrors he didn't mention, such as destruction of rainforests and coral reefs from climate change—appear to be well under way.