Observatory: Walk? Chew Gum? Warble?

January 27, 2004

Walk? Chew Gum? Warble?

Fans of B. B. King know that he never sings and plays a lick on his guitar, Lucille, at the same time. Mr. King no doubt has his own reasons for doing this ("The minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille," he said once in an interview).

But one explanation could be that for him, as for other musicians, singing while playing might affect both adversely. The sum would be less than the parts.

The male brown-headed cowbird has some multitasking issues of its own. When it sings (not the blues - it's looking for love, not regretting a lost one) it also puts on a show, puffing its neck feathers, spreading its wings and bowing shortly before the song is over.

The question for Brenton G. Cooper and Dr. Franz Goller of the University of Utah was, Does the cowbird somehow coordinate these two disparate tasks? The answer, they report in the journal Science, is yes.

The researchers studied cowbirds in the laboratory, measuring wing movements and respiratory patterns with transducers and other devices. They found that there was extensive synchronization between the movements and singing. During the display, for example, respiratory effort is reduced, and during the most elaborate movements the bird pauses in midsong, even though it is still expiring air.

The cowbird is the only species that has these kinds of pauses, the researchers say, and they allow the bird to avoid any bad effects of the wing movements on sound production. The researchers suggest that this interaction between vocal and visual signals affected the evolution of the cowbird's songs.

Twisted Chemistry

You may remember learning about the MK bius strip - that one-sided topological wonder made by taking a strip of paper, giving one end a half-twist, and joining the two sides together.

Chemists at the University of Kiel in Germany haven't forgotten that lesson. With colleagues at another German institution, they've created a MK bius-strip aromatic hydrocarbon in their laboratory.

Aromatic hydrocarbons are ringlike structures with a cyclic base of six carbon atoms. The simplest of these is the familiar solvent benzene.

It was first suggested nearly 40 years ago that by manipulating the electrons in a ring, a hydrocarbon-with-a-twist might be created. The German researchers forced the issue in a way, assembling their molecule from two pieces, one of them rigid and the other in a half-twist.

The researchers, who reported on their work in the journal Nature, said that contrary to what one might assume, their twisted, one-sided hydrocarbon was no less stable than other cyclical molecules.

Watching and Spotting

You don't need a fancy telescope to spot an Earth-crossing asteroid. Stu Megan did it with a PC, an Internet connection and a lot of spare time.

Mr. Megan, a semiretired technology worker and an amateur astronomer in Tucson, is a volunteer in a Spacewatch program at the University of Arizona to detect small fast-moving asteroids.

On Jan. 18, while reviewing, via the Internet, images taken that night by a telescope on Kitt Peak, he spotted a telltale streak indicating a fast-moving object. Further analysis revealed it to be a 60- to 120-foot Earth-crosser (it missed the Earth by about 1.2 million miles last Thursday).

It was the first confirmed Earth-crosser found by the program, which began last fall.

Most asteroid detection is done by software that hunts for changes in digital images. But small fast-moving asteroids like the one discovered by Mr. Megan are hard to detect on a computer. So the Spacewatch program relies on human eyes.