Random Samples

Science  10 Jan 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5604, pp. 197

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  1. Nothing to Laugh About

    Something's rotten in Santaland. Last year, two U.S. government agencies—NASA and NORAD—issued press releases claiming to be tracking the movements of old St. Nick. But the two agencies plotted very different courses for his Christmas Eve peregrinations, raising serious questions about the integrity of Santa-tracking systems.

    NASA is the newcomer to the business, and Sgt. Austin Carter, a spokesperson for NORAD, whose nuclear-attack-proof headquarters is deep under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, did not seem terribly amused by NASA's encroachment on the military's traditional responsibilities. “Tracking Santa has been a NORAD program for 45 years,” he said firmly. “I wasn't aware of NASA involvement.”

    NASA's data indicate that Santa took a standard orbital pattern on Christmas Eve, zooming quickly from west to east, whereas NORAD showed the sleigh moving from east to west—from Asiatic Russia toward the United States—in a clearly suborbital trajectory. A little after 7 p.m. EST, for example, NASA declared Santa to be just off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, whereas NORAD had him over the British Isles.

    Before Christmas, NASA spokesperson Kyle Herring downplayed the consequences of any disagreement between NORAD and NASA Santa tracks. “I don't think we're going to be comparing notes,” he said. But the disparity leaves open the possibility that Santa might have a mysterious double or, even worse, that his sleigh is able to evade our highest-tech radar systems. The only person who could answer these questions was unavailable for comment.

  2. Ant Wars

    Scientists in the tropical latitudes are chalking up their first victories in a long-running battle against marauding exotic ants. In one case, they have wiped out an invasion spread across 200 hectares in northern Australia, believed to be the largest ant eradication ever. “This proves it's possible,” says Ben Hoffmann of the Australian science agency CSIRO, who led the attack.


    Aggressive imports such as fire ants and Argentine ants have been invading much of the world over the past 2 centuries, wiping out native insects and messing up local ecosystems. In Australia, where the ants are more recent arrivals, scientists from CSIRO and Parks Australia turned their firepower on an invasion of the African big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala) in Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage site in the Darwin area in the Northern Territory. This creature eventually forms colonies of millions and wipes out other ants and many native insects, so it is a serious threat.

    Starting in October 2001, teams of two to 24 people surveyed for ants and then blanketed colonies with hydramethylnon, a commercial poison that kills only ants. They kept surveying and reapplying for a year, aided by local landowners who gave them access to about 100 infested houses. In November, after 6 months of finding no ants, the scientists declared the zone ant free, Hoffmann reported last month at a meeting of the Ecological Society of Australia in Cairns. Total cost: 600 hours and $40,000, a tiny fraction of the millions it could cost to keep the ants down once they spread.

    Entomologist Sanford Porter of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who says the Australian campaign is probably the largest ant eradication ever, is working on a plague of little fire ants on 24 hectares in the Galápagos Islands. And Hoffmann's team has taken on a bigger challenge: an invasion of African yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) in 65 locations around Nhulunbuy, also in the Northern Territory. That battle is expected to last 2 years and cost well over $1 million.

  3. Readying for Mars


    Romulus and Remus? Tweedledum and Tweedledee? Amos and Andy? If you're in grade school or high school, here's your chance to get into the Name the Rover contest for twin Mars Rovers. The robotic geologists are scheduled to be launched in May and July and to land on Mars next January. They'll be gently carried to the planet's surface by parachutes (above, in tests at the world's largest wind tunnel at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California). To enter, go to www.nasa.gov/newsinfo/nametherover.html.

  4. Ban That Word

    In 2001, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) proposed banning the word “accident” on the grounds that most such events are not random and are preventable. BMJ editor Richard Smith said that the exercise made people think. “The proposal to ban a word focuses attention on the many wrong assumptions, prejudices, and even evil thoughts that might be contained within a word,” he maintains. So, to wind up 2002, BMJ held a new word-banning contest. Readers showed a strong distaste for cant and euphemisms.

    View this table:
  5. Invisible No More

    NPA leaders (from left) Karen Christofferson, Carol Manahan, Raymond Clark, Claudina Aleman Stevenson, Orfeu Buxton, Avi Spears, and (not pictured) Arti Patel.


    U.S. postdocs—who make up what the National Academy of Sciences once called “the invisible university”—now have an advocate.

    Backed by a $450,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) hopes to represent this 50,000-plus corps of young scientists. In addition to magnifying the efforts of some 70 campus-based groups, NPA will tackle national issues, including reform of tax and immigration laws. “They are the country's new generation of scientists, and they need to be treated properly,” says Michael Teitelbaum of Sloan, which this month awarded an 18-month grant to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science) to help launch the association. The group (nationalpostdoc.org) is already planning an annual meeting 14 to 15 March in Berkeley, California, and is seeking an executive director with experience in building a membership organization. “We're not going to be lobbyists,” insists steering committee member Carol Manahan, president of the postdoc association at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We have enough to do just trying to educate government agencies, professional societies, and higher-education groups about the problems facing postdocs.”

  6. Data Points

    Woman power.Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins has helped engineer another coup. Last summer, Hopkins, famous for a 1999 report about the status of women scientists at MIT, tried to get the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to examine gender problems at U.S. universities. But NAS president Bruce Alberts politely put her off.

    Not so Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who last fall held a hearing on the plight of women academics (Science, 11 October 2002, p. 356). “My own attempts to get at the facts have been rebuffed,” she wrote Wyden shortly after the hearing. Wyden subsequently added language to a National Science Foundation reauthorization bill, signed into law last month, requiring NSF to hire the academy to study hiring, promotion, tenure, and resource allocation practices at U.S. universities. The bill also asks NSF to find out why women, on average, receive smaller federal research grants than men do.

    Hopkins is elated. The academy will start assembling a panel this spring.

  7. Jobs

    Cell-off The creators of a new Web-based biology journal have snagged a top editor from a targeted competitor.

    Vivian Siegel, currently editor-in-chief at Cell, will join the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit group in Berkeley, California, to oversee PLOS Biology (Science, 20 December 2002, p. 2307). The publication plans to distribute research articles for free and recoup costs by billing authors.

    “What self-respecting, idealistic editor wouldn't jump at the chance?” says Siegel, who joined Cell in 1994. Yuh Nung Jah, a former mentor at the University of California, San Francisco, recalls that Siegel's editorial skills made her a magnet for labmates preparing papers for submission.

    New at NIDA.

    Psychiatrist Nora Volkow of the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, New York, an expert on using imaging to study addiction, last month accepted the job as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “It's a very challenging job with a tremendous amount of potential to influence a field that's very important,” says Volkow of running the $890 million institute, part of the $23 billion National Institutes of Health. She is bubbling over with ideas on how to curb drug abuse. “My brain never stops thinking,” she says.

  8. Overheard

    Good/bad news.Women's health advocates have mixed feelings about the 11 new members of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) advisory panel on reproductive health. The Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR) has hailed the Christmas Eve appointment of Stanford endocrinologist Linda Guidice to lead the panel, which reviews the safety and effectiveness of reproduction-related drugs. But they dislike three other panelists, including Kentucky obstetrician J. David Hager, who the National Organization for Women says “confuses religion with medicine.” SWHR submitted 55 names to FDA, but Guidice's was the only keeper.

  9. Honors

    Epitaph for a snake lover.

    Joseph Slowinski lived and died by poisonous snakes. Now his memory will live on in a reptile first identified by a scientist he once mentored.


    “That was his whole life,” says his former protégé at Louisiana State University, Frank Burbrink of the College of Staten Island in New York. Slowinski, 38, a curator at the California Academy of Sciences, died on 11 September 2001 after being bitten by a venomous krait in Myanmar (Burma) (Science, 5 October 2001, p. 45). Now he will be commemorated by Elaphe slowinskii, or Slowinski's corn snake, a reptile long known to frequent areas of Louisiana and Texas and one that Burbrink has now identified as genetically unique.