Random Samples

Science  28 Aug 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5944, pp. 1053
  1. It's Fit to Be Smart

      CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA; J. KEAGY ET AL.

      Brainy bowerbirds get more dates than sluggish problem-solvers, say behavioral ecologists at the University of Maryland, College Park.

      Australian bowerbirds exhibit complex mating behavior that involves singing, dancing, and building cozy twig-and-grass bowers to lure females. To see if male IQ contributes to reproductive fitness, graduate student Jason Keagy led two experiments at Wallaby Creek in Australia that were based on males' dislike of having red things in their bowers. In one test, birds had to drag off a transparent box covering a red plastic battery cover. In another, birds tried to hide immovable red tiles from view.

      Among about 30 birds, the speediest problem-solvers also achieved the most sexual encounters, the researchers report in a paper in press in Animal Behaviour. “This is the first test of general cognitive ability [or ‘g’] being related to mating success for any species,” Keagy says. “This is a really nice observation,” says Carlos Botero, a behavioral ecologist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina. But, he adds, “at this point, we don't know” if females are choosing mates on the basis of brains or on something such as a sexy dance that may not correlate with g.

    1. Multitasking—Bad for The Brain?

        Scientists at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, have unsettling news from what they say is the first-ever study of chronic multitaskers.

        A team headed by psychologist Eyal Ophir compared 19 “heavy media multitaskers” (HMMs), identified by questionnaires on media use, with 22 “light media multitaskers” (LMMs). They tested how well the subjects could filter relevant information from the environment, filter relevant information in their memories, and quickly switch cognitive tasks. One filtering test, for example, required viewers to note changes in red rectangles while ignoring blue rectangles in the same pictures.

        HMMs did worse than LMMs across the board. Surprisingly, says co-author Clifford Nass, “they're bad at every cognitive control task necessary for multitasking.” Nass, a sociologist, says the study has “disturbing” implications in an age when more and more people are simultaneously working on computers, listening to music, surfing the Web, and texting or talking on a phone. Also troubling, he notes, is that “people who chronically multitask believe they're good at it.” The findings are reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

        The team hopes to investigate whether multitasking really scrambles brains or whether people with poor filtering and attentional abilities are more attracted to it to begin with. Psychologist Anthony Wagner suspects that media multitasking offers instant rewards that reinforce “exploratory” behavior at the expense of the ability to concentrate on a particular task.

      1. When Zombies Arrive

          CREDIT: PHOTOS.COM

          If zombies attack, the living must show no mercy. So concludes a mathematical model that its creator says could cast light on outbreaks of infectious disease.

          The virtual scenario, designed by epidemiologist Robert Smith? (sic) of the University of Ottawa in Canada, models an outbreak of slow-moving, flesh-eating “living dead” who reproduce by biting the living and can be killed only by a blow or a gunshot to the head. The model includes the resurrection and zombification of the dead as well as the effects of quarantining the infected and possibly rehumanizing them. “We tried to describe as much of the zombie biology as we could,” says Smith?, in a new book titled Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress.

          The only way to get rid of the undead for good is to launch frequent and large-scale attacks and “destroy their brains,“ notes Smith?. Mike Tildesley, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, sees an “interesting analogy” with infectious diseases: Whatever the control strategy—vaccination, quarantine, or eradication—it's important to stick to the plan.“

        1. Scopes in Oils

            Brueghel's Extensive Landscape with View of the Castle of Mariemont (detail).

            CREDIT: © VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, RICHMOND/THE ADOLPH D. AND WILKINS C. WILLIAMS FUND/PHOTO: KATHERINE WETZEL

            Galileo Galilei has been credited for making telescopes popular, but a fresh analysis of masterpieces by Jan Brueghel the Elder shows that telescope technology spread more quickly than historians realized. Pierluigi Selvelli and Paolo Molaro, astronomers at the Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste in Italy, recently observed that a painting called Extensive Landscape with View of the Castle of Mariemont portrays what was very likely one of the first telescopes ever built. The painting, showing a 40-centimeter-long Dutch spyglass, is dated to about 1608–11. Telescopes first appeared in 1608.

            Brueghel also tucked a 1.8-meter collapsible telescope into Allegory of Sight, painted with Peter Paul Rubens in 1617. Johannes Kepler described the design in 1611 but never built one. The painting, the scientists report in a 20 August paper on the arXiv preprint server, shows the sophisticated instrument was in use earlier than anyone thought.