Random Samples

Science  05 Jun 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5932, pp. 1245

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  1. The Eclipse That Proved Relativity


    Last week, a trio of U.K. scientists trooped to the little-known island of Principe off the West Coast of Africa to celebrate one of the most renowned experiments of the 20th century.

    Astronomers Pedro Ferreira of the University of Oxford, Richard Massey of the University of Edinburgh, and Oxford anthropologist Gisa Weszkalnys visited the site where a team led by British astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington photographed stars during a total solar eclipse on 29 May 1919 (noted above in the 22 November 1919 edition of The Illustrated London News). The stars in the constellation Hyades appeared to be slightly in the wrong place. The shift showed that the sun's mass had warped the path the starlight followed through space, a key prediction of Albert Einstein's then-new general theory of relativity. The 21st century scientists gave talks and unveiled a plaque at the plantation where Eddington's observations were made.

  2. Tuned to Bond

    If music be the food of love, could there be an overlap between genes for musicality and social bonding? Researchers in Finland claim to have found an association between musical aptitude and certain versions of a hormone related to attachment behavior.

    A team led by geneticist Irma Järvelä of the University of Helsinki gave 343 people from 19 Finnish families—all containing musicians—aptitude tests for pitch discrimination, time discrimination, and auditory structuring ability (detecting changes in the order or number of small tone sequences). They then collected blood samples from 298 participants.

    The team found musical aptitude to have a strong genetic component, with heritability from the combined tests estimated at 0.44. The scientists looked for associations between musicality and several behavior-related genes and found one: two variants of a receptor gene for arginine vasopressin (AVPR1A). That's the stuff implicated in turning promiscuous voles into monogamous ones; it's also been associated with social attachment in humans (Science, 7 November 2008, p. 892).

    The finding suggests that the “neurobiology of musicality is related to pathways affecting … attachment behavior,” the authors reported last week in PLoS ONE. Neuroscientist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, says the paper addresses a “hot topic.” Experts debate whether music is just an evolutionary frill. If a genetic link is established between music and social bonding, she says that “could have far-reaching implications … [meaning] that music plays a role in human evolution.”

  3. But No Cats for Rover


    The next Mars rover will be named Curiosity, thanks to a 12-year-old girl from Lenexa, Kansas. Clara Ma's essay suggesting that name was one of 9000 proposals NASA received from students around the country.

    “Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone's mind,” Ma wrote. “It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day. Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn't be who we are today. Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder. … We will never know everything there is to know, but with our burning curiosity, we have learned so much.”

    Ma is being rewarded with a trip to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where she will get to sign her name on the rover. Currently being assembled, it is scheduled for launch in 2011.

  4. Putting a Face on Ancient Apes


    When workers dug up a fossil while building a dump for a country house in the hills west of Barcelona, Spain, a half-dozen years ago, they had no idea that they had uncovered a treasure trove of fossils. Among them was a new species of ape that lived 11.9 million years ago, according to a report in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The discovery literally puts a face on a type of Miocene ape that may have given rise to African apes—gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans—says paleontologist Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Institut Català de Paleontologia in Barcelona.

    The new ape, called Anoiapithecus brevirostris, may offer clues about whether apes in Eurasia or Africa gave rise to great ape lineages, says Moyà-Solà. The jaw has traits that could tie it to later African apes: a deep upper palate and thick tooth enamel. The relatively flat midface and high-crowned canines are also reminiscent of hominids, the offshoot that led to modern humans. But the authors also acknowledge that the traits could have arisen independently both in Europe and in Africa. This ape would have been an evolutionary dead end if, as most scientists believe, great apes emerged in Africa.