Ivory Towers: If you want to know the time, ask a pigeon

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TO CATCH up on research in various fields, here is a summary of some recent findings, beginning with a study of people's ability to stand on one leg.

'One-Legged Balance Test Times' by Richard W Bohannon (Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1994, 78, 801-2) points out some inconsistencies in earlier studies, and raises doubts about whether measuring the time an elderly person can stand on one leg is a reliable indicator of their propensity to fall over when walking on two. There is also considerable discrepancy in the figures that relate to whether women are better or worse than men at standing on one leg.

The same issue of Perceptual and Motor Skills, however, does have some encouragement for astrologers. 'Astrological Cuspal Days and Births and Deaths of Suicides' by David Lester reports a survey of 334 famous suicides. Of these, the researcher was able to discover the birth dates of 212 and death dates of 242 people.

The data 'supported the possibility that the day of death may be a cuspal day more often than would be expected on the basis of chance.' Death dates of 92 New York City policemen suicides in the 1930s, however, did not conform to the theory. So it's probably only auspicious to commit suicide on a cusp if you're famous.

'When Gay is Pretty: Physical Attractiveness and Low Homophobia' by Sune M Innala and Kurt E Ernulf (Psychological Reports, 1994, 74, 827-31) reports on research into what they term the 'gay-pretty-boy stereotype'. Subjects 'generally judged to be non- homophobic' were shown photographs of physically attractive men and women, with information supposedly telling whether the person was homosexual or heterosexual. The results showed that women rate men as more physically attractive if they believe them to be homosexual. Men, however, did not think lesbians were any more attractive than heterosexual women.

Finally, 'Time-of-day Discrimination by pigeons, Columba livia' by Lisa M Saskida and Donald M Wilkie (Animal Learning and Behavior, 1994, 22, 143-154) investigated pigeons' timekeeping. The experimental pigeons were trained to discriminate between four keys. One gave them food in the mornings, another in the evenings, and two gave no food at all.

After the pigeons had learned to press the right buttons, they were tested under two potentially confusing conditions. In the first, the lights were turned on six hours earlier than usual; in the second, the pigeons were kept under the same dim light all day. In both cases, they retained their ability to press the right key at the right time. This suggests that pigeons use an internal circadian timer, rather than relying on external cues. So if you want to know the time, ask a pigeon.