Random Samples

Science  11 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5946, pp. 1323

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  1. The Widening Gyre

    Crowley returns from garbage patch.


    Two ships returned last month from voyages to the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the Pacific Ocean garbage patch, laden with plastic debris ranging from confettilike fragments to a giant fishing net weighing half a ton.

    The haul was part of Project Kaisei (www.projectkaisei.org), the largest attempt yet to collect samples and study the effects of the “plastic vortex,” where ocean currents from Asia and North America come together to trap non-degradable junk. The excursion was conducted by the New Horizon, a research ship from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the brigantine Kaisei, a sailing ship owned by the Ocean Voyages Institute in Sausalito, California.

    Mary Crowley, who founded the Ocean Voyages Institute in 1979, recalls when there was scarcely anything but a few glass net buoys in the vortex; since the mid-1990s, it's emerged as a major environmental concern, hosting an ever-growing sea of debris in an area twice the size of Texas. Researchers at Scripps and elsewhere are now settling down to analyzing the distribution and impacts of the debris.

    Crowley says the institute is experimenting with collection devices that will hold trash—while sparing marine life—until boats come along to pick them up. Next year, the group plans to retrofit some fishing boats for extensive cleanup efforts. “I suspect we have gotten involved in a very long-term project,” she says.

  2. Vacationer Beware

    Planning a Caribbean escape this winter? “Touring a tropical paradise affords one the opportunity to eat poisoned food, swim in contaminated waters, and sustain serious injury from marine life.” That's the jaundiced view of the brand-new Infections of Leisure, the only textbook dedicated to spoiling your free time. It details how eating mussels can cause 2-year bouts of amnesia and how playing sports helps spread ringworm. And who knew that pet hedgehogs, turtles, and iguanas are just crawling with salmonella? The new fourth edition adds chapters on “Perils of the Petting Zoo” and “Infections on Cruise Ships” to its earlier warnings of the dangers of camping, going to the beach, gardening, or simply being at high altitudes.

  3. Three Q's


    India's first moon mission, the $100 million Chandrayaan-1 launched last 22 October, ended on 29 August after scientists lost touch with the spacecraft. Science talked with G. Madhavan Nair, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation and newly appointed president of the International Academy of Astronautics.

    Q:Are you disappointed that the project had to be terminated less than halfway through its mission of mapping lunar resources?

    It is slightly disappointing. We had underestimated the environment—we had only textbook knowledge of the environment around the moon. But … the mission has served its purpose. … [T]he technology related to traveling to the moon and going around it has been well-proven. We have got over 70,000 images, sufficient for the next few years for our scientists to work on. So that way the mission has been a grand success.

    Q:Will this loss affect plans to launch an Indian in space on an Indian rocket?

    We have got a well-chalked-out program for improving the reliability of the rocket system and also the spacecraft. Compared to what we have now—dual redundancies—the manned capsule will use quadruple redundancies.

    Q:Will any heads roll as a result of the collapse of the moon mission?

    No. If I had to fix the responsibility at all, I would fix it on the sun, which emits a lot of charged particles and provides a lot of heat, which really causes problems to spacecraft.

  4. Divided Brains Are Sharper


    People and many animals have brains whose two sides are responsible for different realms of cognitive activity. A leading theory is that this lateralization promotes fitness through faster, more accurate problem-solving.

    Behavioral ecologist Culum Brown and biologist Maria Magat of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, decided to test this idea with 40 parrots (among the cleverer birds) from eight different species.

    First, the scientists determined the degree of brain laterality by observing the parrots' eye fixations and foot movements. Then they tested the birds with a simple problem—picking out seeds from a background of similar-looking pebbles—and a more complex one: retrieving food from the end of a string suspended from a perch.

    The team reported online last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that the birds with the strongest cerebral asymmetries (they were usually left-footed) were the most adept. Birds with no particular foot or eye preference did the worst. “These individuals have problems with coordination,” says Brown. “They try a mixture of approaches, and sometimes they manage to muddle through.”

    Cognitive neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento in Italy says the study provides “fascinating confirmation of the link between higher cognition and brain asymmetry.”