Random Samples

Science  23 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5990, pp. 373

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  1. What the Heck?


    “Hella,” Northern Californian slang for “very” or “extremely,” is gaining tongue-in-cheek support as a new metric prefix denoting 1027.

    Austin Sendek, an undergraduate physics major at the University of California, Davis, first proposed hella earlier this year on his blog as a joke. But the hella Facebook fan page has 60,000 members and counting. And scientists do work on scales greater than 1024, the largest number with an official prefix, yotta. “I do believe that [metric prefixes] should not stop at yotta,” says Roger Blandford, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “The Hubble length [the greatest distance light could have traveled since the beginning of the universe] is about 1026 meters,” he notes, “and the Planck mass [the mass of the tiniest hypothetical black hole] is 1028 eV.”

    George Smoot, a University of California, Berkeley, astrophysicist and 2006 Nobel laureate, likes the word's local flavor. “Hella could also be short for the Greek word for Greek (Hellas),” the source language of the other prefixes, he adds.

    But hella's chances of official adoption are hella slim for a couple of reasons, says Kumar Sharma, a nuclear physicist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and former chair of the commission responsible for units at the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. For one, “it derives from a slang word that refers to another slang word [helluva],” he says. And for another, “popular use alone just doesn't cut it.”

  2. Big Bucks Down Under

    Australia is famous for having Big Things—such as the Big Lobster (Kingston, South Australia), Big Pineapple (Gympie, Queensland), and Big Bull (Wauchope, New South Wales)—scattered across the country. Now add Big Bucks to the list. On 6 July, the Australian Research Council announced its second round of Australian Laureate Fellows (www.arc.gov.au/media/major_announce.htm), 15 recipients of grants between AU$2.7 million and $3.1 million over 5 years for research projects based in the country. The government launched the grants in 2008 to retain top researchers, attract foreign talent, and foster graduate students and postdocs. (Winners are encouraged to hire new staff members with the cash.) Eleven of the fellows are scientists, including two evolutionary biologists, a mathematician, a structural engineer, an oceanographer, an astronomer, an ecologist, a photonics expert, a zoologist, and a physical chemist. Expect big things.

  3. Moose Maladies


    On winter evenings, ecologist Rolf Peterson sits in a rustic log cabin on a small island in Lake Superior, Michigan, poring over the results of his research: 4000 index cards, some more than half a century old, chronicling osteoarthritis in local moose.

    Peterson, of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, has tracked the Isle Royale moose population—“an index card for every dead moose”—for 35 years, carrying on the project his mentor started in 1959. Each winter, he and colleagues collect and autopsy moose carcasses, noting their sex, age, foot-bone length (a measure of early nutrition), and the state of their joint cartilage.

    So far, Peterson has found that moose with smaller foot bones are nearly three times as likely as their big-footed friends to have osteoarthritis when they die. Osteoarthritis cases surge in years when the population is higher and there are more mouths to feed. That suggests that the condition results from malnutrition during youth rather than long-term wear and tear on joints, the team reported online 7 July in Ecology Letters.

    Using osteoarthritis as an indicator of malnutrition has great implications for learning from the fossil record, says paleontologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh of the University of California, Los Angeles. It could “allow you to understand nutritional status in [human] history when that information is not available,” she says. “It's a very important, useful tool.”

  4. Stitching Light


    It doesn't look like an x-ray, but this richly embroidered, 18-square-meter tapestry, unveiled 9 July at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron lab in Chilton, U.K., is just that. The star-speckled design in its center is an x-ray diffraction pattern, an image that helps scientists figure out the structures of tiny objects—in this case, a pinhead-sized protein that plays a crucial role in preventing schizophrenia. The yellow and pink ribbons and helices mimic the secondary structures of proteins, and each of the 120 white dots on the outside symbolizes a diffraction pattern scientists created using Diamond's synchrotron to get the complete structure. Diamond commissioned textile artist Anne Griffiths to design the tapestry, and in November 2008 Britain's then-science minister added the first stitch. The piece toured Paris, Chicago, Long Island, and the United Kingdom, collecting more than 5000 stitches along the way.