More than a century ago, H.G. Wells told the fictional tale of Griffin, a gifted medical student who managed to make himself disappear. Griffin became the Invisible Man by tinkering with his body’s refractive index, the measure of how light is deflected off an object. Last fall, Berkeley researchers announced the development of new materials that have revolutionary refractive properties, bringing the prospect of invisibility from the pages of science fiction to the pages of science journals.
Science + Health
Years of drought across much of California brought a fast and furious start to the 2008 fire season. At one point in June, more than 2,000 fires were burning in the state. Wildfire is a natural, and vital, part of California’s ecosystems, and as more people move in to areas prone to burning, says Professor Scott Stephens of Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, we need to find ways to both actively manage and coexist with it.
Experience has shown us where there’s sugar, there’s usually ants. But Berkeley biologist Robert Dudley and his colleagues found that in inland areas, ants swarmed to salt solutions in preference to sugar, their basic food. The study suggests that the availability of sodium could be what limits plant-eating ant populations globally.
For those with a refined punchline palate, Jester, the Online Joke Recommender, is a dream come true. The website’s premise is simple: Read eight jokes and rate them according to how funny you find them. After that, Jester will begin suggesting new material tailored to your tastes. Whether you’re a fan of shaggy-dog yarns or snappy one-liners, you’ll find plenty of material for your next social gathering or paper presentation.
Natalie Batalha’s worst enemy is the clock. Installed around the corner from her office at NASA Ames Research Center, a looming LED display is counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the launch of the Kepler Mission: NASA’s first attempt to find habitable Earth-like planets in our galaxy.
“It’s terrible,” says Batalha ’89, who has been working on the mission for eight years. “It recently rolled over from 300 to 299, and I could just feel my blood pressure rising.”
In Kenya, it seems everyone has a favorite Laurence Frank story.
In his book, A Primate’s Memoir, baboon researcher Robert Sapolsky recalls encountering Frank in the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya. Sapolsky describes Frank as “Laurence of the Hyenas,” a wild man who stalks through the bush at night, oblivious to danger, using infrared vision goggles to study large carnivores.
In June, U.S. space scientists announced “with great pride and a lot of joy,” that they had spotted frozen water—ice—in robotic images from the surface of Mars. The discovery confirmed a scientific prediction by a Berkeley chemist nearly 40 years ago. Mars is wet. Oddly, he based the prediction on a totally erroneous observation.
“Your job as a scientist is to figure out how you’re fooling yourself,” Saul Perlmutter declares. The famed astrophysicist is sitting in the cafeteria at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, eating a falafel. Normally he talks at a machine-gun pace, but his speech, between bites, is measured. He glances out a big picture window toward the Berkeley hills and the fog-veiled universe beyond. “Our brains are … so good at seeing patterns that we sometimes see patterns that aren’t there.”
Berkeley assistant professor Alex Bayen was floating mobile phones down the Sacramento River one day in 2007 when he received a call that would change his life. Nokia, the world’s biggest maker of mobile phones, was on the other end. They wanted to know if Bayen, a researcher in Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, could do the same thing with traffic that he was doing with rivers; namely, use cell phones to reconstruct flow patterns. Bayen said he could, and the $6 million Mobile Millennium project was born.
After launching the Understanding Evolution website as an educational source for the public in 2004, researchers at Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology quickly discovered that many people lacked a grounding in the fundamentals of science. For example, some didn’t grasp the distinction between scientific fact and theory, or didn’t fully appreciate the complex workings of the scientific method.
If you believe a recent study that’s been all over the news, children are wrecking your marriage.
According to the study, many couples complain of marital discord within a year after the arrival of the first baby. Another study out of Berkeley that was covered by The New York Times concluded that couples who hold on until the children leave home find a return to nuptial bliss.
Charles Benton began by choosing the right kite for the strong April winds blowing at San Francisco’s Crissy Field. He had three “soft” kites stuffed into his backpack—soft because they don’t rely on stiff frames to hold their shape. He pulled out the largest one and attached it to a line. The wad of bright nylon fabric filled with wind and rose into the air, straining powerfully against its tether—powerfully enough to loft his digital camera skyward.