Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • HIV: Learning From Monkeys and Chimps

    HIV, like any other virus, has one goal--and it isn't killing. The goal is to reproduce, and since viruses do that by hijacking their hosts' cells, they can't further their own existence after they've killed off those cells. The ideal virus (for its own sake, and also for ours) might be one that didn't make its host sick--more of a hitchhiker than a killer.Such viruses do exist, including HIV-related viruses found in African green monkeys, sooty mangabeys and other primates. In these monkeys, says virologist Frank Kirchhoff, "the immune system tolerates the virus." The reason, says a new paper in Cell by Kirchhoff and others, may be that the simian viruses suppress the monkeys' immune reactions to them. But in its evolution from monkey virus to human scourge, HIV lost that characteristic. As a result, the human body goes haywire fighting the virus, exhausting its own immune system.The chimp version of the virus--unlike the monkey one, but like the human one--doesn't temper the...
  • Science: Who's That Stunner?

    Enlightened types say they're "self-aware" when they mean they're one with the universe. But for scientists who study animal behavior, the term "self-awareness" has always meant something much more down to earth. Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating whether animals, like humans, can think about themselves, their past and their future. To find out, they draw markings on animals' bodies and put them in mirrored rooms. If the animals spot the markings and pose so as to examine them better, they understand that they're seeing themselves. According to the theory, they're self-aware.The trouble is, increasingly, scientists are finding that the theory doesn't always match the data. Creatures that don't have brains built for self-awareness (at least as we know it) have recently passed the mirror test. Other animals that strike out show signs of self-awareness in the wild. And still others seem to be "semi-self-aware"--they don't quite pass, but they don't quite fail, either....
  • Dolphins: 'Bob's in a Picture!'

    According to scientific naming, the dolphin above is called Tursiops truncates, but it probably thinks it's named something more like "Bob." Marine biologists announced last week that dolphins compose their own unique signature whistles and clicks that identify them within their communities--or, put more simply, dolphins have names.Despite a wide range of pseudo-cultural and learning behaviors recently discovered across the animal kingdom, dolphins are one of only two animal species known to name themselves. (The other is the spectacled parrotlet; bats and budgerigars may name their living groups but not necessarily themselves.) Scientists don't know why dolphins choose the call signs they do, although a male may be more likely to compose a whistle that sounds like his mom's. They also don't know why the dolphins seem so self-centered: "They say their names a lot," says researcher Laela Sayigh. This doesn't necessarily mean Bob the Dolphin swims around shouting "Bob!" all day. The...
  • Videogames: Playing It Smart

    Parents who worry about violent video-games would have loved last week's rankings on Amazon. Holding steady at No. 2 was Brain Age, a Nintendo DS game that features no shooting and lots of studying. It's been out for a year in Japan, where it's sold more than 3 million copies, and came out in the States last week. Along with its upcoming sequel, Big Brain Academy, and the PlayStation Portable's Practical Intelligence Quotient, it's part of a wave of games designed to sharpen players' minds as well as their hand-eye coordination.The games are fun--and they really might work. Brain Age is based on the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, who says the game's 14 quick tasks, including Sudoku, speed-reading and simple math, can keep the brain "young." One medical clinic in Toronto is even using Brain Age as therapy for Alzheimer's patients. Players' scores are given as "ages," with 20 as the ideal--and as players improve, they get "younger." Maybe that's why the game is so...
  • 'Vintage' Bugs Return

    Growing up in Peoria, Ill., in the 1950s, Lance Rodewald caught "measles and mumps and probably German measles," and though he doesn't remember suffering through any of them, his wife, Patricia, assures him they were all "absolutely miserable" experiences. She knows because she had them, too. Infectious diseases were a midcentury rite of passage. But as Rodewald grew up, he watched those childhood terrors retreat. Doctors started vaccinating widely in the '60s and '70s, and by the time he was old enough to have kids of his own, it seemed the only common illness left for American parents to worry about was chickenpox.Scientists developed a vaccine for that as well. But even after his kids made it safely to adolescence, Rodewald, 52, didn't assume that the era of infectious disease in kids in the United States was over. As a pediatrician and director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Immunization Program, he had looked at the data--and seen that "all these diseases are...
  • Physics: From Time To Time

    Ronald Mallett, a University of Connecticut physics professor, thinks time travel is possible--and he's designed an experiment that could do it. Basically, he wants to "swirl" empty space the way you'd swirl coffee in a cup, using a laser as the stirrer. Because space and time are more or less the same, swirling empty space could also swirl time. Mallett would then drop subatomic particles into his roiling cup of space-time and see if they're hurtled a few nanoseconds into the future.The idea sounds esoteric, but it's based in solid theory: Einstein's, in fact. "It's anchored in the general and special theories of relativity, and that's why people take it seriously," Mallett says. But not everyone. Robert Ehrlich, a physicist at George Mason University, says the idea of time travel is "not disreputable"--scientists have been suggesting time-travel mechanisms for decades--but that Mallett's plan has a major flaw: his device is small enough to sit on a desktop. While it may very well...
  • Leading the Hunt For Cancer Genes

    Thirty years ago, Joan Brugge was a bright college student on her way to a career in math. But when her sister developed a fatal brain tumor, she turned to the library and was stunned to find that there was "basically nothing known" about the cause of the illness. She set out to change that. Now a pioneering researcher at Harvard, Brugge is one of the creators of the new Breast Cancer 1000 genetic database. She recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Mary Carmichael. ...
  • Spring Fevers

    A few weeks ago Ashley Ramirez was visiting a couple of close friends in Omaha, Neb., who were hospitalized following a car accident when she started running a fever and noticed a small lump on her neck. By the next day the lump was "completely massive" and the University of Iowa student was a patient in the hospital herself, hopped up on pain meds and waiting on a diagnosis that baffled doctors couldn't give her. Still sick, she returned to the University of Iowa and took to bed; when friends came by, they teased her for trying to eke out a few words through her cheeks, now swollen like a chipmunk's. By the time her doctors finally called her days later with test results, hundreds of kids across the Midwest were suffering similar symptoms, and Ramirez knew she was one of the unlucky ones. "They told me, 'you have the mumps,'" she says, "and I was like, 'Yeah, thanks, I kind of figured that out.'"For the last three weeks, mumps, a virus many people think of as an early-20th-century...
  • Taking to the Air

    Whatever you call the new Transition, says its inventor, Carl Dietrich, just don't call it a flying car--even if it's the closest thing to one that exists. The Transition runs on regular gas. But you can drive it to the airport, extend its origami-like wings, take off at double the highway speed and fly up to 800 kilometers away, then touch down and park it in your host's garage. Although it's not likely to replace your standard flightless car--driving it requires a sport pilot's license--Dietrich, an MIT grad student, expects the Transition to be on the road in two years.
  • Inventions: Taking to The Air

    Look, in the sky--it's a bird! It's a plane! It's... a personal air vehicle? Whatever you call the new Transition, says its inventor, Carl Dietrich, just don't call it a flying car--even if it's the closest thing to one that exists. The Transition runs on regular gas. But you can drive it to the airport, extend its origami-like wings, take off at double the highway speed and fly up to 500 miles away, then touch down and park it in your host's garage. With the wings folded, the Transition is about the size of an Escalade, with a little less cargo space. Of course, it's a little more difficult to maneuver--it requires a sport pilot's license--so it's not likely to replace your standard flightless car. "It's not like every Joe Schmo and soccer mom on a cell phone is going to be driving one," says Dietrich, an MIT grad student who won the school's top prize for young innovators.Nonetheless, he expects the Transition will be a big hit with weekend warriors (it has enough room for skis...
  • Gut Flora? Great!

    You may use antibacterial dish soap and wash your hands every time you sneeze, but Jeffrey Gordon wants you to know that you're crawling with germs. Gordon, the director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, studies bacteria and ancient forms of single-celled life called archaea--and no matter how clean you think you are, your gut would make him a pretty good laboratory. It's oozing with 750 trillion bacteria and archaea, and there's very little you can do about it.Then again, you probably wouldn't want to do anything about it, because those little guys are good for you. The microbes in your gut have genes of their own, and, as scientists are now learning, those genes are essential to the body's functioning. Gut flora help the immune system ward off more-dangerous bugs; they break down nutrients; they may even manipulate how the body stores fat. If doctors could control the flora, they might be able to stave off disease with a completely new...
  • The Gene Hunter

    To call Dr. Tom Hudson modest would be putting it, well, modestly. One of the world's premier investigators of genetically linked disease, he discovered four years ago that DNA is inherited in chunks--the principle at the heart of the HapMap, the recently completed project describing millions of variations in the human genome. Yet Hudson, 44, an associate professor of medicine and human genetics at McGill University in Canada, says: "I was just the biologist on the team. I'm not the person who decided you need .1 microns here and .5 there." He'll admit only to having "a knack for engineering and gadgets."Hudson is much more voluble on the subject of the Human Genome Project, the 13-year effort to identify more than 20,000 genes in the human DNA lineup, which he helped make happen. If you're wondering why the project hasn't produced enough drugs to stock your cabinet yet, he says, never fear: combined with information from the HapMap and tools like the ones his lab is developing now,...
  • Immunity's Master Controller

    Like many pharmaceutical researchers, Dr. Arthur Krieg is working on a cure for cancer. He also hopes to eradicate AIDS, lupus, hepatitis C, even allergies. And he hopes to do all this with a single kind of drug. He's no mad scientist. His company, Coley Pharmaceuticals, focuses on the innate immune system, the body's defense mechanism against thousands of vastly different pathogens. Coley's dream is to control that system, manipulating its response so precisely that bacteria, viruses and even tumor cells won't have a chance.The innate system is the body's main line of defense against bad guys--a burglar alarm and a police force all in one. Until recently, doctors have essentially treated it as the Rodney Dangerfield of the body. "When I was in medical school, the innate immune system didn't get much respect," says Krieg. What changed all that was the discovery in the late '90s of "toll-like" receptors--primitive yet powerful microscopic structures (named after the German word for ...
  • Analyze These!

    Considering how few people use higher math in their lives, or even remember much of it from high school, the popularity of books on chaos theory and number theory and higher-dimensional geometry is, well, a paradox. Brian Greene's best-selling "The Elegant Universe," on string theory, kicked off the most recent outpouring in 1999, followed by John Derbyshire's "Prime Obsession," Steven Strogatz's "Sync" and Janna Levin's "How the Universe Got Its Spots," a gorgeously written collection of unsent letters to her mom on cosmology and topology. Last year's "The Road to Reality" by Roger Penrose was a best seller abroad despite its 1,136 pages. And, of course, there's the movie and play "Proof." When Gwyneth Paltrow gets involved, you know it's big.The latest entry is Mario Livio's "The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved," a wide-ranging exploration of the phenomenon of symmetry, focused on, well, a seemingly unsolvable equation. Specifically, it's the "quintic," one step up from the dread...
  • Eggs, Lies, Stem Cells

    Hwang Woo-Suk may be a scientist, but in South Korea, he's virtually a rock-and-roll star. The first researcher to extract stem cells from a cloned human embryo, Hwang has an Internet fan club (its women are especially enthusiastic) and a worldwide reputation. In October, after he announced plans for a vast international stem-cell institute, his popularity went platinum. But then, last week, it turned out he was a little too rock-star for his own good. He'd broken the first rule in a profession devoted to truth: he lied.In 2002 and 2003, Hwang's lab was facing a shortage of the human eggs it needed to perform research, so two of his subordinates donated their own. An affiliated hospital paid several more women about $1,400 each to do the same. At the time, Hwang said that volunteers unknown to him had donated all the eggs in his experiments without compensation. He may have believed his own statement; the staffers participated under false names. But after he learned where the eggs...
  • Algae: So Has It Called Yet?

    Birds do it. Bees do it. But placozoans? Since they were discovered in a saltwater aquarium 100 years ago, these simplest of animals have been thought of as, well, just not that into each other. Many marine invertebrates reproduce by budding, and since scientists never observed placozoans in coitus, they assumed the creatures were asexual, too. In the 1970s, a German biologist thought he saw placozoan eggs floating in a dish. But "the only strain that was making these egglike things died," says Yale biologist Ana Signorovitch.Last year Signorovitch also spied some egglike structures, and when she did genetic tests on her placozoans, she found evidence of sex as incontrovertible as a stain on a blue dress. Sexual reproduction always mixes up DNA, and, as Signorovitch reports in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, placozoans have jumbled genes. Now scientists have to see if the little guys are, in fact, guys, girls or hermaphrodites. Signo-rovitch also wants to...
  • Medicine: The Future Arrives Early

    In science, revolutions almost always take longer than their instigators expect--we're still waiting for our flying cars--so when National Institutes of Health director Dr. Elias Zerhouni says that "over the next five years, we're going to discover the most important genes that are associated with the most important diseases," it's easy to be skeptical. But the project that may make that possible is way ahead of schedule.Scientists compiling the HapMap, a database of small but significant points in the human genome called SNPs that vary from person to person, were supposed to have announced last week that they had catalogued 1 million SNPs. But they made that announcement eight months ago. By the time their original deadline for the three-year project arrived, they had analyzed almost four times that many, prompting Secretary of Health Mike Leavitt to nearly lose his breath calling the project "a profound step forward," "a triumph for collaborative science" and "a landmark...
  • REBUILDING THE HEART

    A million lonely ballads notwithstanding, with time, the human heart can recover from an emotional wound. In medicine, however, the prognosis is often bleaker, and time only makes a physical injury worse. If starved for oxygen, heart cells die, their places usurped not by fresh replacements but by scarring. Burdened with useless tissue, with no hope of new reinforcements, the remaining muscle cells in the heart take on more responsibility, working harder to pump the blood. The heart grows larger with the strain but rarely regains its original strength. Despite doctors' efforts to save them with drugs, catheters, stents and surgery, 5 million Americans currently suffer from heart failure. Half will die within five years of diagnosis. Their hearts are, in effect, permanently broken.But the emotional heart does not yield easily to the idea that the physical heart can be defeated. So cardiologists have started pursuing an unorthodox strategy--shoring up the dying hearts with stem cells,...
  • SHUTTLE UPS AND DOWNS

    It is NASA's old reliable, the craft the agency depends on when it needs to prove something big. Discovery was the shuttle that delivered the Hubble telescope and 77-year-old John Glenn into space, and revived NASA as the first ship to launch (in 1988) after the Challenger explosion two years earlier. The orbiter had two missions last week: to dock with the International Space Station, and to demonstrate, again, that the loss of a shuttle need not mean the loss of the entire program. As soon as the ship roared into the sky, it seemed to have met the latter goal. But jubilant spectators could not see what NASA's cameras did. In an eerie reflection of the Columbia disaster, chunks of insulating foam had broken off, despite a $1.5 billion attempt to prevent that kind of problem. Now, as Discovery sits docked in space, its brethren are grounded.The shuttle's commander said Friday that she was "quite surprised" pieces had fallen off the ship, but not everyone was. After the Columbia...
  • STUDY: EYE ON THE STORM

    Since the days of Homer, sailors have theorized about the signals of a coming storm (the presence of dogs, cormorants or whistling sailors) and the signals of calm waters (black cats, swallows or, oddly enough, naked women). A new study suggests at least one superstition may have some basis in science. Seamen in the era of tall ships often poured oils into the water in the hope of averting hurricanes. The oils probably coated the surface and prevented droplets of ocean spray from evaporating as the wind whipped the sea.Those droplets, according to two UC Berkeley mathematicians, are one of the major reasons hurricanes can build up to such ridiculous speeds. Normally, as winds churn, they develop eddies, just as rivers do, and the resulting turbulence slows them down a bit. But when water droplets evaporate through the roiling air and then rain back down into the sea, they straighten out those eddies the way a comb straightens tangled hair. That means less turbulence, which allows...
  • ASTRONOMY: THIRD ROCK FROM GLIESE

    The earth, says "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," is quite nondescript in the cosmic scheme of things. Its distinguishing feature: that it's "mostly harmless." If author Douglas Adams were alive he'd probably say the same thing about Gliese 876, a dwarf star in the constellation Aquarius that's only 2 percent as bright as the sun and until now hasn't attracted much attention. But Gliese 876 isn't as unassuming as it seems. The star is orbited by at least three planets. Two of them are typical giant balls of gas, but last week astronomers announced that the third one has some eerie similarities to ours. The as-yet-unnamed planet is the smallest ever detected outside our solar system, and, like Earth, it's rocky. Because it's just 8,640,797,039, 500,000 miles from its "sun"--next door in astronomical terms--it can get as hot as 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The new planet probably doesn't harbor life or even liquid water (though things could literally get steamy at those temperatures)...
  • EXTINCTION: 'SUPERPREDATOR' ATTACK! (IN 10 MILLIO

    The laws of nature sound like they were drafted in ivory towers: Boyle's law, Bernoulli's principle, the three laws of thermodynamics. But if Polish physicist Adam Lipowski is right, scientists may soon add a more common-sense axiom: what goes around comes around. Every 26 million years or so, a mass extinction wipes out most of the world's species, and it's usually blamed on a meteorite or an act of God. (The next one's not due for another 10 million years.) But after modeling evolution on a computer, Lipowski noticed that genetic mutations, accumulating over millennia, regularly produce "superpredators"--killers so powerful that they destroy the entire food chain, including themselves. That means the culprits behind mass extinction may not be meteorites, but meat eaters.Who were Earth's great superpredators? Scientists aren't sure, and Lipowski says that looks can be deceiving. "For all we know, it could be a bacterium," he says. "It doesn't have to eat all the other species--it...
  • THE RIGHT TIME FOR A CURE

    For diseases ranging from asthma and arthritis to cancer, the cure may be all in the timing. Until recently, most Western docs didn't think it particularly mattered when patients took their drugs, as long as they took them. But the human body has a biological clock, and its biochemistry can vary according to the time of day, month or year, as well as the phases of the sleep cycle. Now, studies are starting to show that following those rhythms can boost a drug's powers.Like so many new ideas in Western medicine, chronotherapy has roots in the East. Chinese medicine posits that Qi, or energy, flows throughout the body in a specific 24-hour pattern, divided into two hours per major internal organ. An energy imbalance in the lungs, the theory goes, will manifest sometime between 3 and 5 a.m. And doctors have indeed found that during the same time period, asthma sufferers tend to struggle more than ever as changing levels of cortical hormones and epinephrine make it more difficult to...
  • ORGANS UNDER CONSTRUCTION

    When Amit Patel says he operates in three different time zones, he's not just complaining about his constant jet lag. Patel, a heart surgeon, is based at the University of Pittsburgh. But in the last four years, he's done his most exciting experimental work in South America, cracking his patients' chests, looking for blockages in their vessels--and then, if he can't clear the obstructions, injecting the patients' hearts with stem cells drawn and cultured from their own bone marrow. Patel has been deluged by hopeful heart-failure sufferers. Since he can't see them all, he refers some of them to Bangkok. Surgeons can perform a similar procedure there, but they lack the facilities to culture stem cells. So those patients' cells are sent on a global odyssey: harvested in Thailand, loaded onto a daily El Al flight, cultured in Israel, returned to Bangkok and finally shot back into the body from which they were derived. Literally and metaphorically, those stem cells have come a long way...
  • THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

    The human genome project may be near completion, but the "real" human-genome project is just getting underway. Scientists now know the sequences of most of our genes. But they don't necessarily know how those genes work or, considering that most of the genome is "junk" DNA that doesn't contribute to the body's normal functioning, whether they work at all. In other words, we've got all the pieces, but we still need to put the puzzle together. Many of the geneticists who worked on the original HGP are now pursuing follow-up projects on their "genes of interest." Here are four who will help give us the complete picture.The Matchmaker Leroy Hood is given to car metaphors. "If you want to understand a car, you can't just study the carburetor," he says. "You need to study all the parts and how they function together as the car travels." If that's true, Hood must be the world's best mechanic (metaphorically speaking, of course). When he first went to Caltech in 1970 on a three-year...
  • HEALTH: A WIN-NING FORMULA?

    For a type of germ most often described as "common," the rhinovirus is a thing of ingenious design, a bug with a thousand ever-mutating faces. If you're unlucky enough to have a rhinovirus in your body, you might have a few more choice descriptions, too: it's the cause of most colds. Rhinoviruses, like several other nasty bugs including polio and coxsackievirus, are capable of changing the shape of their outer walls ever so subtly, disguising themselves from antibodies. Once inside a cell, the virus morphs again, opening flaps in its membrane and letting loose genetic material. Scientists have been stymied as to how to stop the process. But researchers at Purdue University have recently figured out one trick: since the virus is so versatile, why not target it with a drug that's equally flexible? WIN compounds, which Purdue's Carol Post describes as "long, greasy molecules," can contort themselves to fit through a tiny hole in the virus's shape-shifting shell, and then tangle...
  • SHOPPING THE PYRAMID

    If the USDA thought it had a winner with its flashy new food pyramid and Web site, it certainly had some early evidence. In its first 24 hours, MyPyramid.gov received 48 million hits--enough traffic to temporarily crash the site, as eager users checked out the formula, which can be customized according to age, gender and activity level. Critics of the old pyramid--and there were many--rained praise on the new one. Dun Gifford, the founder of Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a nonprofit promoting healthy eating, went so far as to call it "terrific and very hip." The press conference literally had people on their feet, with aerobics guru Denise Austin leading reporters in a few stretches. "Every minute counts!" she chirped. "Don't you feel better?"In fact, now that the hype has died down, some nutritionists are feeling worse. The new system is fun to play with, but, to put it mildly, it has a few bugs. If you want to translate your custom recommendations into meals, says...
  • A 'STRIKING' FRAGILE X FINDING?

    The genetic flaw called Fragile X has a suite of tragic symptoms--mental disabilities, autism and seizures among them. Like most developmental defects, it's permanent, or that's what doctors have assumed. Tom Jongens, though, thinks that there might be hope for a partial cure even after his Fragile X patients--fruit flies--are well into adulthood.Humans with Fragile X lack a particular gene, FMR1, that produces a protein crucial to the functioning of synapses, the spaces that connect brain cells to each other. Jongens's flies are also missing that gene, and they suffer some of the same symptoms as humans, such as short-lived memories. For instance, scientists can train normal male flies not to get too amorous by pairing them with females that aren't receptive. Translated to humans: if a guy strikes out at the local bar, he may stop trying entirely. Male Fragile X flies are more like the guys who won't give up: they forget their training and court any female that comes their way...
  • THE TSUNAMI THREAT

    It was late on the morning of April 1, 1946, and on the island of Hawaii, children from the school at Laupahoehoe Point were the first to see the Pacific Ocean disappear. They watched, awestruck, as 500 feet of sand and coral emerged glistening into the sunshine. A few of the braver ones ventured out onto the exposed reef. Suddenly the water came roaring back, sweeping away the children along with the buildings near the shore and the entire waterfront of nearby Hilo. For nine hours, a teacher, 21-year-old Marsue McGinnis, clung to a piece of driftwood before she was spotted by her fiance, who had mounted his own rescue in a borrowed motorboat. "I saw a number of children floating near me, clinging to wreckage," she said. "We just kept floating out to sea, and some of the children disappeared."Five hours earlier, an earthquake had erupted under the ocean floor off the coast of Alaska. Officials of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, a branch of the Commerce Department, knew what might be...
  • STIRRING UP SCIENCE

    If it's true that intelligent people never get bored, 14-year-old Shannon McClintock ought to be thrilled every minute she's awake. In October her science skills won the top prize at the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. At an age when many girls still harbor hopes of becoming ballerinas and pop stars, McClintock wants to "look for infinite mathematical patterns that haven't been found in nature yet." She's the kind of smart student that educators pin their hopes on. So why did she, of all people, start to find her science classes a little boring when she got to middle school? There was one problem, she says: "Things were too simplified."If only one could say the same for the larger issue of fixing science education in America. For years middle-grade science teachers have struggled to spark the imaginations of their students, and they've found the task to be anything but simple. In the elementary grades, most kids are curious about the natural world. But by the time they...
  • THE QUEST FOR MEMORY DRUGS

    To say that aplysia californicus is one of nature's least glamorous beasts would be too kind. A hermaphroditic marine snail with mottled purple skin, it keeps to itself, responding to disturbances by emitting a murky fluid that stains the water around it. Its "brain," if you can call it that, is stunningly simple, with only a few thousand oversize neurons. It is not, in short, a likely candidate for glory in the animal kingdom. But a few years from now, much of the baby-boom generation may be greatly indebted to this unprepossessing little creature. Aplysia may look homely, but to scientists hoping to develop memory-enhancing medicine, it is a thing of beauty.Thanks to the neurological research of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel and others, Aplysia's minimal nervous system is helping scientists to make sense of how memory works on the biochemical level. The molecules of memory in sea slugs, it turns out, aren't that different from some of those in humans. They are now one of the many...
  • PHYSICS: DOSE OF 'REALITY'

    If you're one of the thousands of people who bought Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" in 1988 and then let it gather dust as it sat on the coffee table impressing your visitors, better clear some space. There's a new theory-of-everything book on the way, and it's even more likely to wow your dates--assuming you can convince them you've read it. The first 400 pages of "The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe," by Hawking's equally renowned colleague Roger Penrose, are solid math. The next 600... let's just say those first 400 were an introduction.Nonetheless, the book is being hailed as a masterpiece, and parts of it (specifically, the ones that aren't equations) are eloquent and comprehensible. Even the rankest amateurs will recognize some of Penrose's references, such as the vertigo-inducing etchings of M. C. Escher. "The Road to Reality" is a British best seller, and though it won't arrive in the States until February, it's already generating...