Random Samples

Science  19 Feb 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5968, pp. 927
  1. Food and Flying

    German scientists have figured out why tomato juice tastes better aboard an airplane than on the ground (and coffee tastes worse). Low atmospheric pressure dampens the experience of sweet and salty tastes whereas sour comes through unchanged and bitter is slightly intensified, says flavor chemist Andrea Burdack-Freitag of the Frauenhofer Institute for Building Physics in Holzkirchen.

    She and her colleagues asked 30 taste testers to rate their perceptions of different foods and wine while sitting in a partial Airbus A310 in a chamber with adjustable pressure. At ground pressures, tasters perceived tomato juice as musty, but at a low pressure typical in flight they found it fruitier, with cool notes. The complex aromas picked up by the nose that give coffee its flavor were barely perceived at low pressure, unmasking caffeine's bitterness, Burdack-Freitag says. Lufthansa's catering arm, which sponsored the study, wants to use the data to improve its menus.

  2. Elephant Gears

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF NORMAN HEGLUND

    How does an elephant shift up to 5 tons of bulk with each step? To find out, researchers in Thailand had trainers ride 34 elephants down 8 meters of force-sensing plates at different speeds. Combining the data with video, the researchers mapped out the force the elephants exerted on the ground at each point in their stride.

    An elephant hits the ground with at most 1.4 times its body weight, the team reports in the current Journal of Experimental Biology. By comparison, a human runner exerts peak forces of three times his or her body weight. And even at top speed, an elephant's center of mass moves up and down a centimeter. “‘Glide’? No, that's not the right word,” says lead author Norman Heglund, a biomechanics expert at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. But it's close.

    “The fact that they were able to set up force plates with elephants and get data this good is really mind-boggling,” says Daniel Schmitt, an expert in primate and animal locomotion at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

  3. Mega-Noise Over Nanotech

    CREDIT: PATRICK SAGNES/S'CAPE EVÉNEMENTS

    A 4-month national debate in France over the pros and cons of nanotechnology has ended prematurely after heckling by antinanotech protesters in five cities made public meetings impossible. Two weeks ago, the committee organizing the series of 17 debates threw in the towel, replacing the final two meetings with “Ínternet workshops” and making the wrap-up event in Paris on 23 February by invitation only.

    The main agitator appears to be a Grenoble-based group called Pièces et Main d'Oeuvre (French for “Parts and Labor”). PMO, a self-described “Luddite” group whose members remain anonymous, calls the events a “pseudodebate” masking a fait accompli. In an e-mail to Science, the group said it is fighting a “totalitarian nanoworld” in which “cyborgs and bionic humans” are enslaved through technology.

    “Shutting up a public debate this way is completely unacceptable,” says University of Rennes 1 physicist Ronan Lefort, a panelist at a 7 January debate that hecklers disrupted. The committee still plans to issue a report, but many worry about future public debates on environmental issues, which are required by a 1995 law.

  4. Caring, Sharing Killers

    CREDIT: DAN J. MCSWEENEY; (INSET) DERON VERBECK/IAMAQUATIC.COM

    The table manners of false killer whales put ours to shame. Once they've caught a fish, each whale politely takes a bite and passes it on to another. If there's a human nearby, he or she will be offered some, too. Dan McSweeney once had half a large tuna handed to him by a 5-meter-long false killer whale. “I pushed it back. He took it and started chewing on it and then left. It was one of those magical moments,” says McSweeney of the Wild Whale Research Foundation in Hawaii.

    Their compulsive food sharing is one trait that has endeared Hawaii's false killer whales, which are actually dolphins, to whale watchers and divers. But over the past 2 decades, the state's genetically distinct population has plummeted from more than 500 to 123 animals. The first-ever study based on satellite tagging the species, published last week in Endangered Species Research by McSweeney and others, found that at least once a month they venture far enough offshore to get caught on the hooks of longline fishers, who are barred from near-shore waters.

    This week, a federally appointed “take reduction team” is expected to consider extending the no-fishing zone. Fishing gear is a leading cause of the decline, along with pollutants and the overfishing of the tuna they depend on, says lead author Robin Baird of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, who's a member of the panel.

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