Random Samples

Science  25 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5948, pp. 1605

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  1. Dealing With Denial


      Paul Ehrlich is still out to save the world. A generation after sounding the alarm about overpopulation, the Stanford University biologist and colleagues have launched an effort called MAHB (pronounced “mob”)—the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior. Its aim is to penetrate public apathy and denial and prod social scientists to look into the behavioral aspects of Earth's problems.

      “I'm trying to … get a global discussion going,” says Ehrlich. Science has laid out the problems—climate change, food and water crises, loss of biodiversity, and toxins in the environment—in great detail, the group argues on a new Web site, mahb.stanford.edu, “yet society stubbornly refuses to take comprehensive steps to deal with them and their drivers,” the first of which is population growth. When Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, died last week, “the blogs were full of ‘This is the person who proved Ehrlich wrong’” in his dire prophecies, says Ehrlich. “What we need is a total change in the way we think about these problems. … We need to start talking very frankly about what people want and what they can have.”

      Ehrlich, 77, says that at present MAHB's core group, including atmospheric scientist Stephen Schneider and Donald Kennedy, former editor-in-chief of Science, is focusing on getting the word out. A “world megaconference” is planned for 2011.

    1. Ready to Drill


        A complete overhaul of the scientific drilling vessel JOIDES Resolution (JR) “has created a new and transformative science environment,” says the ship's head of scientific operations, geochemist Mitchell Malone of Texas A&M University in College Station. The $130 million, 3-year refurbishment, completed earlier this year in Singapore, increased lab space by 34%, Malone says. All lab equipment has been renovated or replaced.

        Living quarters for the scientific crew of 60 are more comfortable, too. On the old JR, researchers stayed in four-bunk cabins, with eight people sharing a bathroom. Now there are two beds to a room, and baths have been doubled. Roommates are put on staggered 12-hour shifts so they can have the room to themselves on off hours.

        The JR is the U.S. National Science Foundation–funded contribution to the 16-country Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, which probes the sea floor to study the deep biosphere, environmental change, and Earth's geodynamics. The ship called at Yokohama in early September to change crews and resupply. It is now drilling into rock at the Shatsky Rise, a Pacific plateau 1500 km east of Japan, seeking clues to the formation of such plateaus.

      1. Fermi Award

          Physicists Sig Hecker of Stanford University and John Goodenough of the University of Texas, Austin, will share this year's $375,000 Enrico Fermi Award from the Department of Energy. Hecker, 65, is the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and an international expert on plutonium who has assisted with past U.S. efforts to communicate with North Korea's nuclear scientists. Goodenough, 87, developed the component of lithium-ion batteries known as the cathode, a ubiquitous part of consumer electronics and hybrid cars.

        1. Boys Will Be Boys


            A 2006 survey of online video gamers revealed that 85% were male. Why the skew? Evolution, say researchers at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

            Psychology graduate student Jonathan Oxford and colleagues recruited 42 undergraduate men, divided them into teams of three, and measured the testosterone levels in their saliva before and after they played a violent video game, Unreal Tournament 2004. Each participant played two game types: Death Match, in which teammates battled one another, and Onslaught, in which teammates cooperated to fight another team. The researchers found that competition raised testosterone levels more when men battled “outgroups” than when they vied with a fellow team member.

            The results bear out the notion, which has also been suggested in sports studies, that fighting as a team taps into males' evolved propensity for engaging in “coalitional male-male competition,” the authors report in an article in press in Evolution and Human Behavior. “Beating a teammate … does not result in a testosterone surge and may even dampen testosterone release,” says psychologist David Geary, a co-author. The differing physiological effects of battling opponents from ingroups and outgroups “are similar to the testosterone challenge response found during male-male competition over mates and status in other species,” he says. Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham says the findings from the study are “highly suggestive. … The influence of prehistoric war on the biology of male brains looks critical to understanding the allure of violence.”