Random Samples

Science  27 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5957, pp. 1171

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  1. How's Your Gaydar?


      Can you guess a woman's sexual orientation just from her face? Surprisingly, your guess would be better than flipping a coin.

      Psychologist Nicholas Rule of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and colleagues asked 21 college students the same question about 192 photos—cropped to eliminate hair and ears—of gay and straight women from dating Web sites. The undergraduates guessed right 64% of the time and scored better than chance—53%—even when they saw only the women's eyes, the researchers report this month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In 2008, Rule reported similar results with male faces.

      The process appears to be unconscious, Rule says. Subjects were more accurate when told to make snap judgments than when they pondered their decisions. Rule believes subtle differences in facial muscles caused by habitual expressions may be the clue. Previous work has shown that homosexuals tend to adopt facial expressions more typical of the opposite sex. The results show that we know much more about others from snippets of information than we realize, says psychologist David Kenny of the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

    1. In Search of Darkness

        Really dark skies are becoming a rarity these days. Galloway Forest Park in Scotland was officially named as the United Kingdom's first “Dark Sky Park” last week at the meeting of the International Dark-Sky Association in Phoenix, Arizona.

        Now there's a Web site to guide amateur astronomers. ClearDarkSky.com, created by software designer Attilla Danko of Ottawa, Canada, pinpoints the best nights for viewing the sky at more than 3800 locations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

        The site translates forecast maps from the Canadian Meteorological Centre into diagrams showing conditions for the next 48 hours. They include hour-by-hour predictions of factors that affect viewing transparency: cloud cover, the amount of water vapor in the air, and seeing, an indicator of turbulence and atmospheric temperature differences.

        The site also forecasts wind, temperature, and humidity at ground level, which influences whether eyepieces and lenses will collect condensation. If your locale isn't on the list, you can nominate it.

      1. Sclerotic Egyptians


          Pharaohs were worshiped as gods, but their hearts were all too human. Cardiologists and Egyptologists recently used CT scanners to scrutinize the mummies of 16 ancient Egyptians and found evidence of heart disease as far back as 1530 B.C.E.

          Because mummification often involved removing the heart, the scientists examined mostly arteries and tracks where arteries used to run. They found both coated with calcium gunk, a sign of atherosclerosis. Scientists have dissected mummies to look for signs of diseases before, including leprosy, arthritis, and heart disease, but never with modern nondestructive imaging techniques.

          The work, reported on 18 November in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that, given the right environment, people have always been susceptible to heart trouble, says co-author Samuel Wann, a cardiologist at the Wisconsin Heart Hospital in Milwaukee. In this case, the mummies came from the highest social castes of Egypt, which often dined on fatty delicacies. Nevertheless, given the less-sedentary lives of most ancient people, Wann says the findings are surprising: “I would have thought that atherosclerosis was a disease of modern man, not something that affected people in the time of Moses.” Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says the work “throws out a lot of old myths about how we're going to pot because of our modern lifestyle.”

        1. Mustiness Marker

            High-acid paper from 1909.


            The evocative smell of old books is the odor of decay. Analytical chemist Matija Strlič and colleagues at University College London have chemically analyzed the smell—which they describe as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness”—and find that its composition is associated with paper degradation.

            The researchers studied 72 samples of paper produced between 1850 and 1990, a period when paper was highly acidic. With liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry, they assessed the condition and stability of the paper through the volatile organic compounds it emitted. They also identified two compounds, lignin and rosin, that are associated with rapid degradation, they reported last month in Analytical Chemistry. Strlic̆ hopes the work can eventually help conservators choose strategies for preserving books.

            Barry Knight, head of Conservation Research at the British Library in London, says similar approaches might replace more invasive techniques for gauging the status of other historical items such as oil paintings and natural history specimens. Ultimately, Strlič envisions doing the job with small hand-held devices. Such a device, says Knight, “could sniff the book as it came up to the [library] reading room, … and if it turned out that it was in bad condition, it could ring a bell” to alert a librarian.