Random Samples

Science  06 Feb 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5915, pp. 693

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    When fire ants appear, small animals that value their lives get out of the way—fast. Some common fence lizards, however, have found a new way to deal with ant onslaughts: They dance.


    Fire ants, which infested the southeastern United States in the 1930s, often attack and eat small vertebrates, including fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus). The ants swarm the animal, pry up a scale, and inject venom that paralyzes and then kills the reptile. But some lizards have developed a wiggling dance that sends the ants flying, says ecologist Tracy Langkilde of Pennsylvania State University, University Park. In the January issue of Ecology, Langkilde reports on a study of lizards captured from areas with and without fire ants. The longer the lizards had lived around fire ants, the more likely they were to dance their way to freedom. Those lizards also had longer back legs, which seem to make the jitter more vigorous. Scientists don't know yet if the lizard dance is an evolutionary trait, Langkilde says. But she also found that lizard babies from areas long filled with fire ants have longer hind legs, suggesting genetic selection at work.

    “Her conclusions are well-supported,” says Henry John-Alder, an evolutionary physiologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and “if not irrefutable, then at least leading to really well-formulated hypotheses for further study.”


    It's not RoboCop, but Japanese robotmaker Tmsuk believes its T-34 security robot can fight crime by snaring intruders in an entangling net. The 60-centimeter-tall robot sends real-time video of its surroundings to a remote operator's mobile phone over Japan's advanced mobile phone service, eliminating the need for cables or wireless networks. On command, the T-34 fires a weighted net capable of enveloping a human target up to 3.5 meters away, holding the suspected criminal until security officers arrive. Tmsuk, which worked with security service provider Alacom in developing the T-34, says the robot could confront dangerous intruders while keeping human guards at a safe distance. “We think this could serve the needs of the security industry,” says company spokesperson Mariko Ishikawa. The company recently demonstrated a working prototype and says a commercial model could be on the market in a few years for about $5000.


    Peter Bennett isn't exactly a rock star. But the inventor of a new musical interface that uses ball bearings to play music has scored a hit with the blogging-and-YouTube set, which is giving the invention rave reviews.

    The instrument, which Bennett calls BeatBearing, consists of a handful of ball bearings that roll into slots on an 8×4 grid attached to a computer. Each row triggers a different sound (kick drum, snare, high-hat drum, or cowbell); each column controls the timing of the beat. Place a ball in the seventh hole of the bottom row, for example, and you will hear a drum beat at the seventh note of the tune. The rhythms become increasingly complicated with the number and pattern of the balls placed on the grid.


    Bennett, a doctoral student at Queen's University Belfast in the United Kingdom, sees the machine as a practical example of a touchable layout used to play music. BeatBearing isn't a finished musical instrument, Bennett says. Still, a YouTube video of him playing the gadget garnered more than 1 million hits in just a few days.



    Elaine Murphy was just starting her medical career in 1974 when she and her husband, John, pulled a fast one on the editors of the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The joke's long run ended last week when the Murphys confessed that a medical condition, “cello scrotum,” they coined in a letter to the journal 35 years ago doesn't exist.

    Now a baroness and member of the British House of Lords, Murphy and her partner in crime admitted the hoax in a letter published 27 January in BMJ. The couple came up with the prank after reading a letter to BMJ in April 1974 on “guitar nipple,” an alleged chest inflammation that the couple assumed was fake. In the spirit of one-upmanship, the pair wrote a short note on “cello scrotum,” an inflammation on a fabricated patient who played the cello for hours each day. “We never expected our spoof letter to be published,” Murphy says. “We probably wrote it after a glass of wine or two.”

    The Murphys came clean after finding a reference to cello scrotum in a December 2008 issue of the journal. Although journal editors disapprove of dishonesty in science, Tony Delamothe, a deputy editor at BMJ, says that the Murphys' joke was harmless. “All of my colleagues, from the editor down, think it's a hoot,” Delamothe says. Murphy adds that she's received no negative fallout. “I was worried the House of Lords would think I was bringing them into disrepute,” she says, “but so far, everyone wants to enjoy the joke.”