Random Samples

Science  26 Jun 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5935, pp. 1625

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  1. It's the Thought That Counts


      Ordinarily, having a species named after you is a great honor. But what if the organism in question is a 5-centimeter, phallus-shaped fungus that smells of rotting flesh? Still a great honor, says Robert Drewes, the curator of herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences and the proud namesake of Phallus drewesii, described in the July/August issue of Mycologia.

      The name was chosen by mycologist Dennis Desjardin of San Francisco State University and his postdoc Brian Perry to acknowledge Drewes's role in inspiring researchers to survey biodiversity on São Tomé and Príncipe, the equatorial island nation off the west coast of Africa where the fungus was found. The islands have incredible biodiversity that scientists have scarcely begun to catalog, Drewes says. Time may be running out, as plans to tap vast offshore oil reserves are under way.

      Drewes describes Desjardin as a “dear friend and colleague” and insists he's not even remotely offended by sharing his name with a diminutive phallic fungus. He notes that two other species already bear his name—a small moss frog, Arthroleptella drewesii, and a blind worm snake, Leptotyphlops drewesi—and neither of those creatures is particularly virile either.

    1. Second Sight

        CREDIT: AP

        Last December, when an angry Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at then–U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, some viewers cringed; others chuckled. Neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, wrote a paper that explains how the president reacted so quickly.

        When you observe your surroundings, your focus moves like a spotlight, settling on what's most interesting and ignoring the rest. Scientists have believed that moving that spotlight requires conscious awareness. But dodging threats (such as airborne shoes) leaves no time for cogitation. This suggests that there are two independent pathways in the visual system—one for perception and the other for action—says Jeffrey Lin, lead author of the study, published in the 11 June issue of Current Biology. The action system allows you to focus your attention on threats before you consciously perceive them.

        “If you look at the shoe-throwing video, you will see that the prime minister doesn't flinch at all,” Lin says. “His brain has already categorized the shoe as nonthreatening.” Bush's brain, in contrast, detected danger and ordered evasive maneuvers. If the men had consciously focused on the shoe, both might have dodged.

        Lin and colleagues tested the hypothesis with a computer program that lobbed simulated baseballs toward viewers' heads. “When we throw two balls at you with very similar trajectories, they may look the same to your perceptual system,” Lin says. “But your brain can automatically calculate which one is more threatening and trigger a dodging motion before you've even realized what has happened.”

      1. They Take the Prize

          The advent of summer saw a bumper crop of awards for achievements in science and technology.

          This year's Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology went to semiconductor scientist Isamu Akasaki, 80, for research that led to the development of the blue light-emitting diode. Akasaki holds professorships at both Nagoya University and Meijo University in Japan.

          Peter and Rosemary Grant, both 72, became the first husband-and-wife team to receive the Kyoto Prize for Basic Sciences. The pair were recognized for their studies of rapid evolution caused by natural selection in response to environmental changes. The Grants are professors emeriti at Princeton University.

          This year's Blue Planet Prize went to Hirofumi Uzawa, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo in Japan, and Nicholas Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics. Both were recognized for applying economic theories to environmental issues such as global warming.

          Five researchers won Shaw Prizes. For astronomy: Frank H. Shu, an astrophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, for work that established a standard model of star formation. For life science and medicine: Douglas L. Coleman of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, for research on obesity in mice, and Jeffrey M. Friedman of Rockefeller University in New York City, who identified the fat-regulation hormone leptin. And for mathematics: Simon K. Donaldson of Imperial College London and Clifford H. Taubes of Harvard University for advances in theoretical physics.

          Recipients of the Kyoto and Blue Planet prizes each receive about $500,000; Shaw Prize recipients, $1 million.

        1. Naming Rights

            CREDIT: PHOTOS.COM

            Get out your baby name books. Element 112 has been officially recognized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the official keepers of the periodic table of elements.

            A team of 21 scientists led by researchers at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, first produced element 112 in 1996 by firing a beam of zinc ions down a 120-meter-long particle accelerator into a lead target. Zinc and lead nuclei fused to produce a single atom of 112. Although scarce (only a handful of atoms of it have been detected), 112 is a stout beast, 227 times heavier than hydrogen and the heaviest element in the periodic table. It's also the sixth element created by the Darmstadt crew, which produced elements 107 to 111.

            New elements are named by their discoverers. So far, the German scientists have named element 107 “bohrium,” 108 “hassium,” 109 “meitnerium,” 110 “darmstadtium,” and 111 “roentgenium.” Perhaps it's time for something a little simpler. How about “Bob”?