Random Samples

Science  17 Feb 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5763, pp. 927

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  1. Empty Suit


    Although it sounds like a high-tech fraternity prank, “SuitSat” is for real. On 3 February, two astronauts on board the international space station released an old Russian cosmonaut suit loaded with batteries, temperature and power sensors, and radio equipment into the ether.

    The mission, sponsored by two space-buff groups, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corp. is to test the durability of the spacesuit and batteries. The public has been encouraged to help track SuitSat's orbit, and reports have been pouring in. Early data suggest that the strength of SuitSat's signal rises and falls as it turns cartwheels in space. The batteries powering the transmitter were expected to last about 120 hours, but the suit will orbit for up to 2 months before burning up in Earth's atmosphere. Aspiring SuitSat trackers can tune FM radios to 145.99 MHz, or go to http://www.suitsat.org/.

  2. Civil War PTSD

    Field hospital in Virginia. CREDIT: BETTMANN/CORBIS

    The weapons were different back then, and battlefield medicine has been revolutionized, but scientists studying medical records from the U.S. Civil War of 1860–65 say long-term effects of war on veterans are much the same. Roxane Cohen Silver and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, have identified more illness, both mental and physical, among Civil War veterans who were exposed to the greatest war trauma.

    The researchers matched military records from 15,027 Union Army soldiers with subsequent pension and health records. In the February Archives of General Psychiatry, they report that 44% of the men reported signs of mental or “nervous” disease after the war, something that was called “irritable heart” by 19th century physicians. “There are a few detractors that say that PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] does not exist or has been exaggerated,” says Joseph Boscarino, senior investigator at Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pennsylvania. “Studies such as these are making it difficult to ignore the long-term effects of war-related psychological trauma.”

    During the Civil War, more than 15% of those fighting enlisted while still under 18, and some were as young as 9. These were 93% more likely than their older comrades to experience later illnesses. Using the percentage of a veteran's company lost to quantify his exposure to trauma, the researchers found that those who lost at least 5% of their company had a 51% increased risk of later development of cardiac, gastrointestinal, or nervous disease.

  3. Dumbing Down

    A British education researcher is causing a stir with his report indicating that U.K. children are getting a lot less sharp than they were 30 years ago.

    In a study submitted last month to the Economic and Social Research Council, psychologist Michael Shayer of King's College London reports that performance by children of both sexes has plummeted on a test that involves perceptions of weight and volume. Shayer compared the 1976 performance of 2350 11- and 12-year-olds in a representative sample of British schools with that of students from the years 2001–04. “An 11-year-old today is performing at the level an 8- or 9-year-old was performing at 30 years ago,” he concludes. In 2004, only 5.7% of boys could equal scores made by the top third in 1976.

    The test features questions such as whether the volume of water stays the same when it is poured into different shaped vessels. Psychologist Jim Ridgway of Durham University, U.K., calls it a “fairly robust indicator of cognitive development.” Shayer blames the falling scores partly on computer games. Children, especially boys, are playing more in virtual worlds instead of “outdoors, with tools and things,” he says.

    Durham education researcher Peter Tymms calls the findings “something to be worried about,” but says they need confirmation as they are belied by rises in IQ and other test scores.

  4. Hooke Notes for Sale


    A rare chronicle of a scientific revolution has been found in a cupboard. The folio of more than 500 pages of meetings minutes and notes, written by the pioneering English physicist Robert Hooke, describe the early years of the U.K.'s Royal Society. The anonymous owner will put it on auction in London on 28 March.

    The writings are from 1661 to 1682 when Hooke was the curator of experiments and then secretary of the society. Several scientific breakthroughs are noted, such as the discovery of bacteria in 1676. Dutch microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Hooke wrote, found “a vast number of small animalls in his Excrements which were most abounding when he was troubled with a Loosenesse and very few or none when he was well.”

    The notes introduce German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz's idea of a “universal algebra” for encoding logical statements, the founding principle of computer science—along with the society president's observation that the idea could not be “of soe great use as he seemed to suggest.” Hooke also takes stabs at his peers, including his rival Isaac Newton. And next to the announcement of a book on navigation by physicist Robert Boyle, Hooke writes, “stoln from me.”

    Astronomer Martin Rees, current president of the Royal Society, is calling for a “white knight” to buy the folio on the society's behalf. The price is expected to exceed $1.5 million. Field hospital in Virginia.