Random Samples

Science  13 Feb 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5916, pp. 857
  1. OLD-BOY NETWORKS HARD-WIRED?

    Men are more sociable than women when it comes to tolerating members of their own sex, according to a study published this month in Psychological Science.

    CREDIT: SIMON ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES

    Psychologist Joyce Benenson of Emmanuel College in Boston and colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Quebec tested the common notion that women are the more “sociable” sex. In a survey of 60 college students with same-sex roommates, they found that twice as many men as women were “satisfied” with their roommates. Data on roommate switches at three different schools bore out the numbers. For example, among more than 3600 students occupying doubles at a large university, 10% of the girls but only 5.9% of the guys wanted to escape their roommates. Finally, when told hypothetical stories in which a close friend of the same sex does something untrustworthy, women were much more likely than men to revise their opinion of the friend downward.

    Benenson says such research fits with evidence that whereas females cherish intimate relationships, males are more inclined to cooperative group activities and willing to put up with one another's foibles. In penetrating male worlds of politics and business, she says, women “confront a huge obstacle, as other women do not provide the support that men provide to one another.”

    Evolutionary psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas, Austin, says the study points at the need to describe “specific ways in which women and men are ‘sociable' rather than using the broad brush stroke of ‘sociability' to characterize either sex.”

  2. A WHALE OF A FETUS

    The four-limbed ancestors of modern whales took about 12 million years to abandon terra firma. Newly discovered fossils offer the first direct evidence that these semiamphibious mammals—like modern otters and sea lions—clung to dry land for breeding.

    Eight years ago in northeastern Pakistan, paleontologist Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues discovered the fossilized remains of an ancestral whale they dubbed Maiacetus inuus in slabs of 47-million-year-old marine sedimentary rock. One 2.6-meter-long specimen contained the first fossilized whale fetus ever found by scientists, they reported last week in PLoS One. The size of the fetus meant it had probably been near term, and its head was pointed toward the mother's pelvis—suggesting that M. inuus delivered its young headfirst, like land mammals do, not tail first, as marine mammals do. Mark Uhen, a paleontologist at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, says “this brings hard evidence” that the creatures had their young on dry land, “an idea that was conjecture before.”

    Female skull is colored beige with brown teeth; her other bones are red; fetal skeleton is blue with red teeth. CREDIT: GEORG OLESCHINSKI/UNIVERSITY OF BONN
  3. DECONSTRUCTING A FREAK WAVE

    CREDIT: © 2007 GARY ROBERTSHAW

    On 23 June 2008, a fishing boat with 20 aboard mysteriously sank off the east coast of Japan. Sea conditions were moderate, but it's an area notorious for shipwrecks and strange waves.

    So oceanographer Hitoshi Tamura of the Japan Agency for Marine Earth-Science and Technology and his team tried “hindcasting” to see if the ship could have fallen victim to a “freak wave”—a rare massive surge of water. Data on wind and ocean currents showed that more than 24 hours before the disappearance, a local wind-generated wave system coexisted with two background swell systems. At first, the local waves were short and choppy, but several hours before the ship sank, strong winds increased their wavelength and tweaked their direction to jibe with a large swell. Waves usually pass through each other, but under these conditions, they can merge to create a system of abnormally powerful waves, the breeding ground for rare freak waves. They would have been out in full force at 1:00 p.m., just around the time of the shipwreck, the scientists reported last month in Geophysical Research Letters.

    Scientists have theorized that just such conditions generate freak waves. But Tamura and his team have created a realistic scenario by combining real weather and ocean data with the latest computer models, says Eric Heller, a physicist at Harvard University. The paper “gets an A,” he says.