Re: American Scientist Update, Vol. 5 No. 10

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In the November-December Issue of American Scientist:

  • Genomics Confounds Gene Classification
  • Virtual Fossils from 425 Million-year-old Volcanic Ash
  • UV Lights Up Marine Fish
  • Rocket Science and Russian Spies

Genomics Confounds Gene Classification
Large-scale genomic studies challenge traditional definitions of genes
by Michael Seringhaus and Mark Gerstein

High-throughput genomics is complicating biology’s understanding of genes and their products. At the same time, genomic experiments are producing massive amounts of data for molecular biologists to sort through. Today’s methods of naming and classifying genes date back to a time when simpler views of life on the subcellular scale prevailed. The data in hand were less voluminous too. To make the most of today’s science, molecular biologists must update their techniques for classifying genes and gene products. As authors Michael Seringhaus and Mark Gerstein relate in their article, information management techniques developed on the Internet may prove useful in forging improved approaches. Seringhaus is a law student at Yale University who has a Ph.D. in genomics and bioinformatics, and Gerstein is the A.L. Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Yale and codirector of the Yale Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Program.

Virtual Fossils from 425 Million-year-old Volcanic Ash
A unique set of fossils reveals diverse creatures from a Silurian seafloor community
by Derek E. G. Briggs, Derek J. Siveter, David J. Siveter and Mark Sutton
(The full text of this article is available to the general public.)

The first major diversification of life on Earth took place during the so-called Cambrian explosion, a record that is well preserved in fossils at sites such as the Chengjiang deposits and the Burgess Shale, dating from 525 and 510 million years ago, respectively. Unfortunately, the fossil record reveals little bout the 100 million years that followed—especially among soft-bodied animals, which were rarely preserved. That was, until a little more than 10 years ago, when a small deposit of 425 million-year-old Silurian rocks was discovered in Herefordshire, England. The authors document this find and explain how they developed imaging techniques that reveal amazing anatomical details of species that help fill many gaps in the evolution of life. Briggs is Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University and director of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Derek Siveter is a professor of paleontology at the University of Leicester. David Siveter is a professor of earth sciences at the University of Oxford and curator of the geological collection at the Museum of Natural History there. Sutton is a lecturer in earth sciences and engineering at Imperial College, London.

UV Lights Up Marine Fish
Some fish see ultraviolet wavelengths, and many must cope with UV’s effects
by Jill P. Zamzow, Peter A. Nelson and George S. Losey

Considering that water more strongly attenuates electromagnetic radiation of longer wavelength, it’s not surprising that fish don’t necessarily “see” the same wavelengths that human beings do or that they are adapted to respond to various frequencies in different ways. Studying species from tropical reefs, the authors learned that many fish are able to see radiation into the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum. Further, they discovered that the mucus so common to the skin of reef denizens is actually a very effective sunscreen. Zamzow is a National Science Foundation Polar Programs Postdoctoral Fellow. Nelson is a senior fish ecologist for H. T. Harvey and Associates and an adjunct professor in fisheries biology at Humboldt State University. And Losey is a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

Rocket Science and Russian Spies 
Explosions and espionage marked the Cold War race to develop solid-fuel rockets
by Joseph A. Castellano

During the Cold War, the U.S. had a number of secret programs that were of interest to the Soviet Union. One of these was a rocket fuel research facility in New Jersey where Joseph Castellano, now a retired chemist, held one of his first jobs in industry. In the early 1960s, he worked with a young Russian man named Anatoly Kotlobai who simply disappeared one day. Forty years later, Castellano discovered that there was evidence that someone with a similar name had been found to be a Soviet spy. He undertook a long search to figure out if it was the same person he had worked with, and what happened to him. The detective story also covers a surprising twist in the type of uses in which substances similar to the experimental rocket fuel now seem to be most promising. Castellano joined RCA Laboratories in 1965 and was part of the team that developed the world’s first liquid crystal display (LCD). In 1976, he found Stanford Resources.

 

Construction Cranes, Conventional Thinking, Kiwi Rats and more...

Also in the November-December American Scientist, Engineering columnist Henry Petroski explores the workings of construction cranes and the mishaps that cause their collapse. Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. 

In Macroscope, statistician Howard Wainer looks into how conventional thinking regularly constrains even scientists from seeing the bigger picture. Wainer is Distinguished Research Scientist at the National Board of Medical Examiners and an adjunct professor of statistics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In Marginalia, Pat Shipman describes the curious case of rat-gnawed seeds that helped to date human arrival in New Zealand. Shipman is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University.

Physicists generally study the elementary particles of matter by smashing them to bits. Computing Science columnist Brian Hayes looks at the less-violent alternative of computer modeling. Hayes is senior writer for American Scientist. Additional information related to his column appears in his Weblog.

In Sightings, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, computer scientist Robert Kosara talks with Jane S. Richardson at Duke University about the elegant ribbon drawings she and husband David Richardson developed, which have become standard depictions of proteins.

Meanwhile, in Science Observer, the editors look into iceberg scratches on the U.S. Continental Shelf, the language of the playing field and a county-by-county comparison of death rates, which found that lifespan has dropped in some U.S. counties. 

 

Scientists' Bookshelf: Science History, Muir's Life and More ...

In this issue of Scientists' Bookshelf, historian Theodore M. Porter reviews The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, by science historian Steven Shapin. Donald Worster's comprehensive new biography of conservationist John Muir, A Passion for Nature, is assessed by Michael P. Branch. Hal Abelson gives an account of Jonathan L. Zittrain's The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Paul Colinvaux's Amazon Expeditions: My Quest for the Ice-Age Equator is critiqued by geologist Paul Baker, and historian Daniela Bleichmar takes the measure of Neil Safier's Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America. Physicist David C. Lindley, the author of Degrees Kelvin, reviews a new collection of articles about William Thomson, Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy, edited by Raymond Flood and others. The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine is reviewed by Martin Davis. And Christine Casson considers Conversations with Wendell Berry, which gathers interviews with the writer from 1973 to 2006. Steven Hill looks at Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (And What We Can Do About It), by William Poundstone. Oliver Sacks' latest book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, is reviewed by Norman W. Weinberger. Plus we peruse a new crop of children's books about science and nature: George Washington Carver, How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate, Sisters and Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World and Wangari's Trees of Peace. And in case those aren't enough, we've added six more online-only reviews of children's books, on subjects including robotics, rodents and the environment.

 

American Scientist Update alerts you to new content and other news from American Scientist, an illustrated bimonthly magazine of science and technology published by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Complimentary copies of the magazine and electronic copies of articles are available to journalists on request. Media contact: Charles Blackburn, cblackburn@sigmaxi.org.

In even-numbered months, American Scientist Update describes each new issue of American Scientist. In odd-numbered months, the Update reports on interviews and other new content posted to the American Scientist Online site, as well as news from Sigma Xi.

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