Science Notes

Discord May Not Be Just In the Ear of the Listener

If spending an hour with a Smashing Pumpkins CD leaves you unsettled, it may not be because you "just don't get it." Researchers at Harvard University report in the current issue of the journal Nature than humans may have a inherent preference for harmonious sound.

For decades, psychologists have debated whether an individual's preference for a Schoenberg or a Schubert was acquired or inbred. Harvard psychologists Marcel Zentner and Jerome Kagan decided to test the notion.

Using computers, a synthesizer, a video recorder, and specially decorated speakers, the duo subjected 32 four-month-old babies - 16 boys and 16 girls - to pairs of 35-second melodies. One was consonant and the other was dissonant.

When researchers played the dissonant melodies, the infants became agitated and looked only briefly at the speakers before turning away. When the consonant melodies played, the infants' movements became much less agitated, and they looked at the speakers for longer periods of time.

The researchers note that cultural influences may determine how people perceive less-extreme forms of musical discord or harmony than the versions they composed for their infant audience. But they say their experiment suggests that babies may bring with them a "biological preparedness" to enjoy a well-crafted chord.

Elephants' wee ancestors

It may not merit a mention in Brooke's Peerage, but the elephant's pedigree has just been extended by 7 million years - and with it the origin of modern mammals, according to a team of French researchers.

Elephants were thought to have originated some 55 million years ago, at the beginning of the Eocene epoch, along with other mammals. Moreover, researchers have been uncertain about whether the elephant's distant ancestors came from Asia or Africa.

Enter fossilized tooth fragments, picked up from a fossil dealer. When Emmanuel Gheerbrant of the University of Paris and Jean Sudre and Henri Cappetta of the University of Montpellier in France analyzed the fragments, they determined that the pieces came from phosphate deposits in the Ouled Abdoun Basin in Morocco.

The samples bore a close resemblance to the next oldest ancestor of today's elephant. Yet they differed sufficiently to warrant the naming of the new, older species.

Based on the samples, the reseachers estimate that the proto-pachyderms weighed an unmammoth-like 20 to 30 pounds.

Besides adding an entry to the elephant's family tree, the team also concluded that the creatures in fact came out of Africa, not Asia.

Charcoal from the deep

Measurements of organic carbon in sea-floor sediments can give researchers a unique window on global climate change. It can help them refine their estimates of the amount of carbon "sequestered" by marine life, versus the amount of carbon tied up in land-based vegetation. This kind of carbon "inventory" and its changes are important in estimating past changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

A pair of researchers from the University of Virginia report in the current issue of the journal Geology that charcoal from land-based brush and forest fires in Africa over the past 200,000 years has added significant amounts of organic carbon to the sea floor. Indeed, the scientists say, their findings suggest that the amount of organic carbon locked up by marine processes in the region during this period may be as much as 50 percent less than previously estimated. The findings also could allow researchers to begin comparing the ecological effects of prehistoric "natural" fires with those ignited by modern man.

David Verardo and William Ruddiman, the environmental scientists who conducted the research, suggest that further studies of charcoal in sea-floor and even lake-bottom sediments could help refine estimates of how carbon is distributed on the planet.

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