Random Samples

Science  07 Feb 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5608, pp. 817
  1. Fertile Theory

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF MICHAEL RAPPENGLÜCK

    The purpose of one of the oldest objects d'art may finally have been solved. The 32,000- to 38,000-year-old carving (above) on a sliver of mammoth tusk represents the constellation Orion and could have been used as a fertility guide, says a German researcher.

    The pocket-sized tablet was found in 1979 buried within the collapsed Geißenklösterle cave in southern Germany. Researchers soon offered several possible identities for the figure carved on its surface, including the hunter Orion. But they were not able to reach a definitive conclusion.

    Now Michael Rappenglück of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Gilching-Geisenbrunn, Germany, has used a computer program to show that the figure closely tracks what Orion would have looked like 32,000 years ago. In particular, he says, one of the constellation's stars (phi2 Ori) has shifted significantly from the top of the hunter's head into the neck. He also offers an explanation of how ancient people used the 87-odd notches on the opposite face of the tablet. About 32,000 years ago, Orion's brightest star, Betelgeuse, would have been periodically visible from the cave for 3 months, roughly equivalent to 87 nights. By using an algorithm similar to the so-called Naegele's Rule—a method still used by many doctors today —the due date of a baby can be estimated by subtracting 3 months from the first day of the last menstrual period, and then adding a year and a week. Rappenglück speculates that women might have used the tablet as a guide to avoid pregnancies likely to result in births during migrations between summer and winter camps. Rappenglück's paper will appear in the August issue of the Proceedings of the European Society for Astronomy and Culture.

    “We can never be 100% sure” about such ancient objects, but the Orion hypothesis seems plausible, says astronomer Juan Belmonte of the Institute of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands, a specialist in prehistoric astronomical systems. If Rappenglück is right, the tusk carving would be the earliest known star chart. It is some 16,000 years older than a possible star chart on the walls of France's Lascaux cave.

  2. Boxy Swimmers

    CREDIT: IAN BARTOL

    One look at the aptly named boxfish, and you might expect it to swim as well as a barn would fly. But using lasers and a plastic replica, an international research team is beginning to understand how these awkward-looking creatures swim so agilely through unpredictable waters.

    Boxfish dwell in reefs and constantly face turbulence. But they are quite dexterous and stable swimmers. To understand boxfish agility, marine biomechanist Ian Bartol of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues had a boxfish known as a smooth trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter) caught, frozen, and shipped from Puerto Rico. The team then took the fish to UCLA's radiology department for a computerized tomography (CT) scan. “It was odd sitting in that waiting room with the fish,” Bartol recalls.

    From the CT data, the scientists created a three-dimensional, 15-centimeter-long epoxy boxfish model (above), which they dunked in a water tunnel seeded with reflective particles. As water flowed over the model, the team members illuminated the particles with lasers. Videotapes showed that the vortices that develop around the boxfish's body are the secret to its unflappability, the researchers report in the 15 February issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology. For instance, if currents slant the boxfish upward, a vortex on top helps straighten it out. The same phenomenon is a hallmark of delta-wing aircraft such as the Concorde and the space shuttle.

    “They're actually taking advantage of turbulence and controlling when and where it appears,” says Bob Gisiner, marine mammal science and technology program manager at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia. Navy engineers are interested in such findings, he notes, because they might help them build more efficient undersea robots.

  3. Sediments of 9-11

    CREDIT: DAN BRABANDER AND SARAH OKTAY

    The collapse of the World Trade Center towers left a scar on the New York City skyline. It may leave an indelible impression on New York Harbor as well. Researchers studying Hudson River sediments have found a distinct layer of ash from the collapse that will likely linger for centuries.

    A month after the disaster, geochemist Sarah Oktay of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, led a team of scientists that studied the bottom of the nearby Hudson. They found a sediment layer a few millimeters thick that contained elevated levels of copper and zinc and the chemical signature of building materials such as drywall. Using a scanning electron microscope, they also saw gypsum particles and silicon rods and fibers (above) that probably came from wallboard and fiberglass insulation, the team reports in the January issue of EOS Transactions.

    The telltale layer won't disappear any time soon, the team predicts. Whereas most estuaries collect sediment slowly—less than 2 centimeters per year—New York Harbor collects five or more centimeters a year. So the ash will be buried quickly, Oktay says, keeping it from being disturbed by bottom-dwelling creatures. And Peter Santschi, a geochemical oceanographer at Texas A&M University in Galveston, says it's likely that the fingerprint will be discernible hundreds of years from now—and possibly even millions.

  4. Timeless Tragedy, Eternal Hope

    Joachim Joseph in happier times

    Israel suffered another tragedy last week when its first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, died along with the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The disaster also claimed a Torah, which had survived a concentration camp only to be incinerated in space.

    Ramon brought the hand-sized scroll—which he displayed from orbit “as a symbol of the strength and resilience of the Jewish people”—at the behest of Holocaust survivor and geophysicist Joachim Joseph. As a child in Bergen-Belsen, Dutch-born Joseph was befriended by a rabbi who decided that he should study to become a Bar Mitzvah, a rite of passage for 13-year-old Jews. After a secret 4 a.m. ceremony using a small Torah he had smuggled into the camp, Rabbi Dasburg asked his student for a favor: “I'm an old man who won't get out. You must tell the story of this Torah.”

    Joseph survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel, where he was miraculously reunited with his family. He became a professor at Tel Aviv University, where he helped design an experiment that would measure atmospheric aerosols from space. Ramon tended that experiment throughout the 16-day flight. Now 71, Joseph must once again carry on the legacy of his fallen comrades.

  5. Sideline

    Stars for sale. If spending a weekend at a tropical resort with your sweetheart seems too conventional, what about a night with the world's largest telescope?

    CREDIT: ADRIANA CASAS

    Astronomy buff Walter Cruttenden has won a 4-night Hawaiian “vacation” for two by bidding $16,000 in an eBay auction dreamed up by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP). ASP enlisted the help of Geoffrey Marcy, a planet hunter of high repute, to raise money for the society and visibility for astronomy. “This is fantastic; they sold it too cheap!” says Cruttenden, a successful business entrepreneur from Southern California, about the auction, which attracted 10,000 hits during a 10-day run last month.

    Cruttenden hopes to use his trip—which includes an overnight with Marcy in a control room directing the twin Keck Telescopes, the world's largest, located nearby at the 4205-meter summit of Mauna Kea—“to explore some thoughts on solar-system motions.” And he hasn't decided whether to ask a friend or “some bright, up-and-coming scientist” to join him.

  6. Jobs

    Revolving Gates. A 3-year-old effort to develop malaria vaccines has lost its director to the foundation that launched the project. Regina Rabinovich has been named director of infectious diseases for global health programs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in 1999 put up $50 million to create the Malaria Vaccine Initiative. To replace her, the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, which administers the initiative, has promoted Melinda Moree and named Filip Dubovsky as scientific director.

    Viva natural history. A 37-year-old Latin America- born biologist is the new director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Officials hope that Cristián Samper will bring stability to the popular museum, which has had 11 leaders in the past 2 decades.

    CREDIT: AP

    “I am in this for the long haul,” insists Samper, deputy director and staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

    Born in Costa Rica and raised in Colombia, Samper has spent much of the past decade building up that country's environmental programs, despite war and political instability, and working with international biodiversity organizations.

  7. Honored

    Hardly bird feed. For 48 years, Luc Hoffmann has pursued long-term research on flamingos and other wetlands organisms at a small zoological field station he started in Camargue, France. Last month, in honor of Hoffmann's 80th birthday, his family surprised him by establishing a $4.1 million endowed chair in his name at Oxford University's renowned Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology.

    CREDIT: TOUR DU VALAT/JEAN-PAUL TARIS

    The grant spurred Oxford, which has long ties with Hoffmann's Tour du Valat station, to create a second ornithology position. Hoffmann's grandfather was founder of Swiss pharma giant Hoffmann-La Roche.

  8. Notable

    Face in the crowd. Who was the man standing next to First Lady Laura Bush when her husband unveiled a $10 billion plan to help Africa deal with its AIDS epidemic during his State of the Union address to Congress last week?

    CREDIT: GEOFF PATINO

    The mystery spectator was Peter Mugyenyi, an AIDS physician who heads the Joint Clinical Research Center in Kampala, Uganda. The center, which is the hub of an innovative network that extends prevention, treatment, and care into the remotest villages, had caught the eye of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Administration's de facto AIDS czar. White House staffers used the model as the foundation for the president's proposal.

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