Observatory: Walk? Chew Gum? Warble?
January 27, 2004
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
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
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.
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
Chemists at the University of Kiel in Germany haven't
forgotten that lesson. With colleagues at another German
institution, they've created a MK
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
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
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.