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Science Notebook

Monday, July 30, 2007

First, Do the Math

The debate over whether to teach physics, chemistry or biology first in high school is missing the point, research suggests. Instead of worrying about what order to teach the three major high school sciences, educators should focus on math, because that subject best prepares students to do well in all the sciences once they get to college.

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia analyzed the grades of more than 8,000 undergraduates who took introductory biology, chemistry and physics at 63 colleges and universities. They also looked at how much preparation those students had in high school.

Students who took more high school biology tended to excel in college biology, but they did not do any better in chemistry or physics, the team reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science. Similarly, those who took more high school chemistry did better in college chemistry, but not biology or physics. The same pattern held true for physics.

The one thing that helped students do well in all college science was having taken an advanced high school math class. That undermines a commonly held belief that math training is not particularly important or helpful for the study of biology.

The fact that each high school science subject gave college students a boost only in that specific subject casts doubt, the authors said, on the idea that changing the traditional order of biology, chemistry and physics in high school will have any impact on college performance.

-- Rick Weiss

Not a Little Squirt

They're big, they're hungry, they swim at up to 25 mph and attack their prey with beaks and barbed tentacles -- and they have moved in by the thousands to the waters of southern and central California, far north of their usual habitat in the equatorial Pacific.

They are the predatory Humboldt squid, known scientifically as Dosidicus gigas and colloquially as jumbo squid. Researchers who have tracked them say they appear to be decimating Pacific hake, a valuable commercial fish species.

The squids' arrival has been documented by deep-diving, remotely controlled robot submarines operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. They have been videotaping the waters off Monterey Bay continuously since 1989, accumulating a data set on marine life there. Louis Zeidberg, a researcher at Stanford University, and Monterey senior scientist Bruce Robison used those records to track the invasion.

The squid, which can grow to 7 feet long and weigh 100 pounds, first appeared for a year or two after an El Niño event in the Pacific in 1997. Then, they vanished, only to reappear in huge numbers after a milder El Niño in 2002.

Why they came remains unclear. The possibilities include climate change and dramatic population drops of tuna and large billfish that compete for food in the Humboldt squid's warmer home habitat.

The squid "moved into a new area during a time of substantial climactic, oceanographic and ecological changes," the researchers write in tomorrow's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

-- Nils Bruzelius

The Value of Honesty

When you think about what you like the most about your friends, do you think about:

A) Honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness?

B) Likability, warmth and friendliness?

C) Competence, intelligence and skill?

Research in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that character attributes such as honesty are the most important factors in the positive pictures we form of our "in groups" -- our circle of friends and colleagues, and ethnic groups.

Morality was found to be more important than sociability and competence, according to experiments by Colin Wayne Leach, Naomi Ellemers and Manuela Barreto at institutions in England and the Netherlands.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they also noted that morality was the most important factor in how groups distinguished themselves from one another: "From the Arctic Circle to the Amazon, East Africa, and the South Pacific, morality was the only characteristic that in-groups consistently ascribed to themselves more than to out-groups."

-- Shankar Vedantam

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