New Worlds: It's official - City designers work to please rats

New research shows rats prefer New York to New Orleans - not (just) the sewers but the city's urban design.

Rat 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rat 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Well, it's official. Rats prefer New York to New Orleans - not (just) the sewers but the city's urban design, according to new research by Tel Aviv University zoologists and geographers, who are working to invent a way to test urban city plans. Instead of using humans as guinea pigs, the scientists enlisted lab rats to determine plan functionality. They'd already tried their theory by blindfolding university biology students to confirm that human orientation strategies and instincts are similar to those of less erudite four-legged city dwellers. "We've found that routes taken by rats and other members of the animal kingdom tend to converge at attractive landmarks, the same way people are attracted, for example, to the Arc de Triumph in Paris," says Prof. David Eilam from TAU's zoology department. "Our research takes the art used by humans to create their towns and cities and turns it back to the animal world for testing. We can look at how rats react to a city's geography to come up with an optimal urban plan." By building mini-models of city layouts at TAU's research zoo, Eilam and colleagues found that grid-like city layouts - like that of Manhattan - are much more rat- (and people-) friendly than unstructured and winding streets such as those in New Orleans. "We've built an environment to test city plans so that 'soul-less' new neighborhoods won't be built," Eilam says. "Using our model of rat behavior, it takes just a few minutes to test whether a new plan will work. It's a way to avoid disasters and massive expense." He expects that the choices the rats make will eventually be plugged into a computer. Eilam and Prof. Juval Portugali, a geography researcher, based their study on the fact that rats build cognitive maps to help orient themselves. "We put rats in relatively large areas with objects and routes resembling those in Manhattan," explains Eilam. The rats, he found, do the same things humans do: They establish a grid system. Using the grid, the rats covered a vast amount of territory, "seeing the sights" quickly. In contrast, rats in an irregular plan resembling New Orleans' failed to move far from where they started, despite travelling the same distances as the "Manhattan rats." Urban planners, they say, can use this rat behavior to test how the public will respond to new objects such as tall buildings or cooperative housing. DOWN WITH NEGATIVE POLITICAL ADS It's election season, and potential voters are bracing themselves for the (usually awful) campaign aids. US communications experts have found that such ads with "negative messages" disgust viewers. "We found that negative campaign ads that cost millions indeed have a physiological and psychological effect," says James Angelini. He and colleagues at the University of Delaware, Texas Tech University and Indiana University studied ads that aired during the 2000 US presidential election and found that negative examples make people want to turn away physically. During the study, the researchers placed electrodes under the eyes of willing participants and showed them a series of 30-second ads from the George W. Bush and Al Gore campaigns eight years ago. The electrodes picked up on the "startle response" - the automatic eye movement seen in response to snakes, spiders and other threats. Compared to positive or neutral messages, negative advertising prompted greater reflex reactions and a desire to move away. The Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison determined that nearly 100% of Republican Senator John McCain's campaign ads were negative, but only 34% of Barack Obama's were. Perhaps that's one of the reasons Obama won... URANUS AND NEPTUNE IN HEBREW All the planets except Uranus and Neptune have Hebrew names. Now the Hebrew Language Academy and the Hebrew University have launched a competition to give these last two Hebrew handles. There is Hama for Mercury, Noga for Venus, Eretz for Earth, Maadim for Mars, Tzedek for Jupiter and Shabtai for Saturn (Pluto is no longer considered a full-fledged planet). Nominations can be sent to the organizers by May 12, 2009 to Individuals, school classes or other groups can send in their suggestions for consideration by a judges panel, and the most successful ones will be voted on by the general public. The winning names will be unveiled at a ceremony to mark the end of the International Astronomical Year during Hanukka at the end of 2009.