Letters from the July 10, 2004, issue of Science News

Language of music

The study by Hyde and Peretz about people inept at all things musical (“Brain roots of music depreciation,” SN: 5/8/04, p. 302: Brain roots of music depreciation) made me think of my spouse of 20 years. In addition to a lifetime of utter tone deafness, he also nearly didn’t receive his graduate degree because he couldn’t pass a required language course. He was examined by a university psychologist, who attributed his inability to learn a foreign language to a brain deficit and was eventually allowed to substitute a computer language for the foreign language. Logic, rather than nuances of sound, is involved in computer languages. The researchers’ new results indicate that an inability to discern pitch, not timing, seems to afflict the amusical. Spoken languages are also about nuances in pitch. I can’t help wondering whether the subjects of this study, like my spouse, had difficulty learning foreign languages.

C.E. Bollinger
Pittsboro, N.C.

Prescient fiction

The phenomenon described in your article “Toxin Takeout: Frogs borrow poison for skin from ants” (SN: 5/8/04, p. 291: Toxin Takeout: Frogs borrow poison for skin from ants), an animal manufacturing natural poisons using chemical precursors in the environment, has been described before—in a work of science fiction! In Arthur Herzog’s 1974 novel The Swarm, later made into a movie, killer bees learned to metabolize organophosphate insecticides and incorporate those molecules into their venom.

Dave Leising
Lowell, Mich.

Judgment call

I am not an advocate of capital punishment, but I wonder whether the people and organizations who are so anxious to use findings on brain maturity (“Teen Brains on Trial,” SN: 5/8/04, p. 299: Teen Brains on Trial) to raise the age of capitol punishment have considered the consequences of winning their case. One might argue on the same basis that anyone who has not yet reached the “age of brain maturity” should not be allowed to make potentially life-altering decisions. Should such people be permitted to volunteer for the armed services? Should they be denied access to any form of weapon? Should they be permitted to participate in any high-risk sport? Should they be allowed to operate cars and other vehicles if their immature brains could lead them to make bad, or even lethal, driving decisions? Would it not be possible to argue that such measures would protect society at large?

Lance C. Labun
Tempe, Ariz.

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