THE ANNUAL MEETING OF THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR the Advancement of Science in Baltimore last week brought together leaders from all walks of research. Discussions ranged from the behavior of atoms to exotic applications for "artificial life." John Carey, Otis Port, and Paul Raeburn report:
A WAVE-TOP TOOL TO TRACK HURRICANES
THE FORECASTING OF TROPICAL storms is still an inexact science, in part because meteorologists don't usually have the luxury of cruising the seas to take measurements. One key parameter, for example, is how much heat is transferred from the ocean to the atmosphere. "These storms are driven by the heat flux from the oceans," explains John R. Anderson of the University of Wisconsin.
So Anderson devised a nifty gadget to supply the crucial information. It is shaped a bit like an oversize Ping-Pong paddle made of two layers of a tough fiberglass mesh. Inside is a heat-flux sensing chip. Floating horizontally on the water with the aid of foam casing, the "paddle" drifts with the current and sends back data even in the roughest weather.
One of Anderson's first ocean experiments showed how valuable that data can be. During tropical storm Allison, the measured heat transfer was only one-tenth what meteorologists had expected, and the storm failed to follow its predicted course of development. Anderson is now fortifying the devices to protect them from ospreys and other birds, which clawed the foam and fiberglass mesh. When he puts a fleet of them in the Gulf Stream this year, the result may be significantly improved forecasts of hurricanes and tropical storms.
THE HEART-STOPPING VIRUSES OF YOUTH
MINOR CHILDHOOD INFECTIONS could be leaving behind a deadly legacy: New research suggests they may sharply increase the risk of a heart attack decades later. If the findings are confirmed, antiviral drugs could become a powerful new weapon against heart disease, saving lives and lowering the $66 billion annual cost of treating such ailments.
Stephen E. Epstein of the National Institutes of Health studied a common organism called cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which infects 80% of Americans by the time they reach adulthood and then persists in latent form. He found that in some people the virus becomes reactivated in artery walls, where it appears to spark abnormal cell growth that may block blood flow.
Epstein examined patients whose clogged arteries were opened by the insertion and inflation of a tiny balloon. Those with evidence of reactivated CMV were three times as likely as others to experience reclogging of the arteries within six months. "The data are compelling but not conclusive," admits Epstein. "The concept needs a year or two of testing before we move to the clinic." By then, he says, we may also understand why CMV becomes reactivated in some patients but not in others.
SOFTWARE FOR THE PAST'S PUZZLES
ONE OF THE GREAT MYSTERIES of archeology is why the Anasazi culture in the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. collapsed abruptly in the 12th century, despite a far-flung network of roads that supported thriving commerce. To test the various theories, such as prolonged drought or overpopulation, researchers at New Mexico's Santa Fe Institute are using so-called artificial-life simulation. The software, called Swarm, evolves its own models of the complexities of real life.
The researchers started with 3-D satellite maps of the region, then added software "agents" that model such variables as weather and agricultural yields. From this swarm of fairly simple agents, complex behavior emerges. Initial results are still being evaluated, but Christopher G. Langton, the institute's artificial-life director, says that Swarm can provide a generic modeling tool to study ecological systems, economic theories, and other complex systems.