Random Samples

Science  06 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5954, pp. 777

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  1. Cyclops Mirror


      Amsterdam-based artist and space engineer Bradley Pitts wanted to create a unique visual experience, but he may have also created a scientific instrument.

      Pitts presented a strange, sphere-shaped mirror called the Ellipsoidal Introspective Optic (EIO) on 23 October during a meeting at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, which co-funded the €80,000 project. Pitts designed the mirror so that when you look into it, your right eye sees your left eye and vice versa—whichever direction you look. “You're looking at the looking itself,” Pitts says. Get close enough, and the images merge in your brain, turning your reflection into a Cyclops.

      Utrecht University physicist Raymond van Ee plans to study how the brain handles the experience, which he describes as “very cozy and comfortable.” Van Ee wants to add tiny projectors to the EIO so each eye sees a different image and then study how the brain resolves the conflict. Pitts says he's happy with the scientific interest—and a little worried that it will destroy the “enigma” he hoped to create.

    1. Petri Dish Artists


        What looks like a fractal design—or perhaps a kelp forest seen from a distance—is actually an art piece created by nonhuman painters. This growing colony of Paenibacillus bacteria and other “microbial art” made their debut on 22 October in a new online gallery, www.microbialart.com.

        The gallery's founder, evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory of the University of Guelph in Canada, started making microbial art for a campus exhibit inspired by Charles Darwin, evolution, and biodiversity. He soon discovered others around the world using bacteria and fungi as an artistic medium, such as Eshel Ben-Jacob, a physicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, who created this piece. Some draw patterns with solutions of luminescent bacteria. Others, like Ben-Jacob, grow colonies in nutrient-limited agar to encourage them to spread out in complex search patterns.

        The gallery should “help visitors to gain an appreciation for the beauty of organisms that we normally never see,” says Gregory, “or indeed which we often fear.”

      1. Scrap Metal Maps

          To improve recycling rates, scientists track down waste metal by counting every ounce used in buildings or manufactured goods—a tedious task.

          Environmental scientist Jason Rauch of Yale University has found a quicker way: combining global wealth data and satellite images of Earth's nighttime lights. First, Rauch gathered existing data on the relationship between metal usage and gross domestic product. Next, he used GDP numbers and nighttime light levels, which correlate with GDP, to create the first global maps of potentially recyclable metals down to 10 square kilometers. Not surprisingly, the maps show that metals are concentrated in the developed world, Rauch reported online on 26 October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Although some of Rauch's numbers are up to 300% off previous estimates, his method is faster and predicts metal usage in regions currently without data, says geologist W. David Menzie of the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia.

        1. Three Q's


            This week, Michael Green, a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a position previously held by Isaac Newton, Paul Dirac, and, most recently, Stephen Hawking. An expert in superstring theory, Green answered a few questions from Science.

            Q:Do you feel any pressure to live up to your predecessors' reputations?

            I suppose the ghosts of my predecessors are lurking in the background, but it would be debilitating to worry about emulating them!

            Q:You were part of the so-called First String-Theory Revolution. What did you do?

            In 1981, we showed that the nonsensical infinite quantities that have plagued all other attempts to unite quantum theory with gravity are absent in superstring theory. Furthermore, in 1984 we showed that other potential disasters, known as chiral anomalies, are absent in superstring theory, which therefore has the potential to consistently describe all the forces, including gravity, in an elegant manner.

            Q:Will string theory ever be tested directly?

            It depends what you mean by “directly.” One well-publicized hope is that predictions of string theory will be tested by particle physics experiments or by cosmological observations, although precise predictions are hard to come by. But string theory has evolved into a subject of broader relevance. One example is the recent description of high-energy collisions of heavy ions in terms of gravitational effects involving black holes. Such weird interrelationships are intriguing and point to further excitement to come.