Random Samples

Science  02 May 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5620, pp. 733
  1. The Oldest American Idol

    God carved on gourd. CREDITS: (TOP TO BOTTOM) JONATHAN HAAS/THE FIELD MUSEUM; JILL SEAGARD/THE FIELD MUSEUM

    Archaeologists surveying a coastal Peruvian valley have discovered the oldest image yet of a major South American deity. It's a 4000-year-old etching on a gourd, depicting a fanged figure called the Staff God.

    The archaeologists—Jonathan Haas of The Field Museum in Chicago, Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and Alvaro Ruiz, co-director of the Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico—found two gourds, both incised with similar images, last summer in looted burial grounds about 190 kilometers north of Lima.

    “It's got all the elements” of the Staff God, a deity common to several Andean cultures, whose right arm carries a staff while the left ends in what looks like a snake's head, Haas says.

    Radiocarbon dating of one fragment places the gourds at around 2250 B.C., the researchers report in the May-June issue of Archaeology. That means they were carved during the “preceramic” era when people in coastal valleys built complex towns with administrative buildings, stone monuments, and large sunken plazas. Little is known about Norte Chico's religion back then, when there were as yet no ceramics, gold, or decorative stonework.

    There has been a longstanding debate about whether a later culture—the Chavin, which went on to influence Peruvian societies—had its roots on the coast or in the highlands. “All of this evidence may add weight to the argument that the origins of the Chavin religious art style are coastal,” says Helaine Silverman, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “I think this is a very exciting discovery.”

  2. Desert Dash

    DARPA race scenario. CREDITS:DARPA

    Next February, a bunch of yet-to-be-designed robots will take on a rugged challenge: a 1-day, 480-kilometer race through the desert, rolling (or treading) from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with no human direction. The winner gets $1 million.

    Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the race's purpose is to spur the development of smart desert-warfare vehicles.

    Competing vehicles will be allowed one pit stop where they can be refueled and repaired by robot. They will be wired so DARPA can stop a vehicle in an emergency—such as the imminent running over of a hiker. Otherwise they will be allowed no outside guidance except for what is publicly available from the Global Positioning System. DARPA will furnish the details of the course 2 hours before the start—enough time for computers to generate maps and plans but not enough to practice the route.

    The first to jump in when the contest opened this month was robot designer Red Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “I'm there to win,” says Whittaker, who has designed numerous robots, from one that helped clean up the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to one that will look for life on Mars. He has put together a “Red Team” to design a robot that he estimates will cost about $5 million.

    Meeting the DARPA challenge will represent a “grand leap” toward making a robot that is truly an autonomous decision-making creature, says Whittaker. “The state of the art is about 2% of what is needed to win the race.” Present-day robots can only do off-road navigation at a few kilometers an hour at best, he says. The DARPA racers will have to average at least 40 km per hour, navigating hills, boulders, water hazards, and dry lakebeds. But one of the biggest environmental hurdles, says Whittaker, will be dust obscuring the robot's vision.

    The race will be run on 28 February. If no one finishes within 10 hours, robots will have another go in 2005.

  3. Cybernetic Tarantulas

    CREDIT: STEVE REICHLING

    Scientists have seized on a novel eco-indicator: radio-tagged tarantulas. Two species, surgically implanted with rice grain-sized transponders, are helping document forest destruction in Belize.

    Steve Reichling, curator at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, has launched a decades-long project to monitor the loss of old-growth forest by tracking the shifting populations of two types of tarantula: the dense forest-dwelling redrump tarantula and the clear land-preferring cinnamon tarantula. Beasts are tagged at three sites, each containing old-growth forest, farmed forest, and cultivated land. Researchers then use portable scanners to locate them. If a tarantula burrow gives off no signals, researchers look for and tag new immigrants.

    Tarantulas are ideal environmental indicators, says Reichling, who reports in the April issue of Biologist that he has now tagged 50 individuals. They live for up to 20 years and settle in easy-to-locate burrows for life. The tags are inserted in the abdomen so they won't fall off during molting. Surgery can be tricky, he says—even a small incision can be fatal, as spider blood does not clot. The technique is a “huge advance,” says arachnologist Samuel Marshall at Hiram College in Ohio. “There was no way to permanently mark tarantulas before.”

  4. The Science of Origami

    Lang and a paper moose. CREDITS: REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM ORIGAMI DESIGN SECRETS BY ROBERT J. LANG (A. K. PETERS, 2003); R. LANG

    Although Robert Lang pays the bills with his work on semiconductor lasers, he's best known for adding a new wrinkle to origami—the ancient art of folding paper into three-dimensional shapes. After more than a decade of applying engineering techniques to the art, Lang has come out with a mathematical guide for origamists.

    Engineers have used the art to design folding space telescopes and model automobile airbags. Mathematicians have even proved origami theorems. Lang's new book, Origami Design Secrets, applies math and engineering ideas to create new designs. “Both origami and science have the beauty of natural order and a mathematical structure that I find appealing,” says Lang, an optoelectronics engineering consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    The author of six previous books on the topic, Lang has also created a software program that automatically gives the user an algorithm for making designs of a certain type. “It tells you step by step how to develop a crease pattern,” he says.

    Some origamists complain that infusing science into origami creation takes creativity out of the art. “But [science] is just a tool,” Lang says, defending his approach. “It's no different from using paintbrushes and pigments.”

  5. Jobs

    Leaving orbit. From the first hours after Columbia disintegrated, he was the anguished face of NASA. Now, Ron Dittemore, space shuttle program manager, is stepping out of the picture. The typically calm, collected, and slow-talking manager insists he is not being pushed; Dittemore says he told his bosses last year he wanted to leave this spring after 4 years on the stressful job. Shuttle officials, Dittemore says, made “an appropriate response” after a chunk of insulating foam hit Columbia's wing during takeoff, although the accident likely contributed to its loss later in the flight. He says the agency is considering coming up with a tile repair kit so astronauts could fix damage while still in orbit.

    CREDIT: NASA

    Dittemore has promised to stay on until the accident investigation is completed, which should be this summer. After that, he won't say, but he hinted that he will stay in the space business.

    Wider horizons. Robert Strausberg, director of cancer genomics at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), is moving to direct research at The Institute for Genomic Research, the Rockville, Maryland, nonprofit founded by J. Craig Venter. He says he's looking forward to working on a “much broader” scientific portfolio.

    Strausberg was at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) genome institute from the early to mid-1990s, when NIH and Celera Genomics, then run by Venter, were locked in a race to decode the human genome. In 1996, he joined NCI to head up several new genomics ventures, including the greatly successful Cancer Genome Anatomy Project—a database of genes expressed in human tumors.

    Cancer genomics researcher Greg Riggins of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, says Strausberg's talent for “bringing people together will be missed.”

  6. Awards

    Energy award. Russia has entered the mega-science-prize arena with a new Global Energy Prize. The first three awardees, who will split $900,000, were announced last week. Nick Holonyak of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is honored for energy-saving technologies. Gennady Mesyats, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), and Ian Douglas Smith, of Titan Corp. in San Diego, are lauded for studies of laser pulse energy.

    The prize, fueled by Russia's big oil companies, was the brainchild of Nobel physicist Zhores Alferov, vice president of RAS. A 25-person panel picked the winners. It is a “Russian-centered and Russian-decided” prize, says panelist and Nobel physicist Arno Penzias.

  7. On The War Front

    Lost in the shuffle. Although Iraq's purported development of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons was a leading reason behind the U.S. invasion, scientists don't seem to figure prominently among the villains now being tracked down. The deck of cards showing the 55 members of the Iraqi regime's “most wanted” includes only two scientists. And they are near the bottom of the stack.

    CREDIT: DOD

    Seven of diamonds, Amir al-Sadi, Saddam Hussein's scientific adviser, is a German-trained chemist who worked on Iraq's chemical weapons program in the 1980s and commuted between Baghdad and Hamburg, home of his German wife and two sons. After surrendering to coalition forces on 13 April, al-Sadi is sticking to what he told U.N. weapons inspectors before the war—that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction.

    The hunt is still on for five of hearts, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a 50-year-old microbiologist who got her master's degree at the University of North Texas in Denton and her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, Columbia. The only woman in the pack, Ammash, nicknamed Mrs. Anthrax, is said to be a central figure in Iraq's biological weapons program. She is now believed to be in Syria.

Log in to view full text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution