Random Samples

Science  04 Jul 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5629, pp. 43

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  1. Overseeing Earth's Treasures

    Satellite image of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Congo, endangered habitat of mountain gorillas. At right is Lake Kivu on the Rwandan border.


    Keepers of UNESCO World Heritage sites are getting a new set of tools to help safeguard cultural and natural treasures—data from Earth observation satellites.

    The world's 730 World Heritage locales range from the Great Barrier Reef off northeastern Australia to mosques in Timbuktu, and nearly half are in developing nations. Up to now, they've only enjoyed patchy surveillance from space. But last month at the Paris Air Show, the heads of the European Space Agency (ESA) and UNESCO agreed to bring remote-sensing technologies to scientists overseeing the heritage sites. NASA and space agencies elsewhere, including Brazil and Argentina, are also expected to join the effort.

    The initiative got its start in 2001, when ESA began monitoring the habitat of mountain gorillas. An estimated 600 gorillas live in the misty highlands of five national parks in the war-torn countries of Rwanda, the Congo, and Uganda. ESA scientists have been using optical and cloud-penetrating radar satellites to make detailed topographic and vegetation maps that conservation authorities combine with their own field observations. That pilot project is now expanding to track deforestation. Analyzing such trends in such rugged, inaccessible areas is “much more easily done using satellite imagery than on the ground,” says Liz Macfie, program coordinator of the International Gorilla Conservation Program.

  2. Hay Beats GORE-TEX


    Nike take note: The shoes of a frozen iceman perform better in certain alpine trek tests than modern hiking boots. A Czech engineer has trail-tested the shoes of Ötzi, the 5000-year-old frozen mummy discovered by hikers in the Alps in 1991. Petr Hlavácek, a professor of shoe technology at Tomas Bata University in Zlin, Czech Republic, recreated Ötzi's shoes, which had bearskin soles, tree-bark netting uppers, and were stuffed with a soft alpen meadow hay. A set of the replicas went on display last week at the German Leather Museum in Offenbach.

    In September 2001, several volunteers donned the shoes for a 2-day hike to the Alpine pass where Ötzi was found. The measurements they took along the way showed that insulation coefficient in the replicas was higher than that of modern trekking shoes, Hlavácek says. They didn't keep the hikers' feet dry—stepping in a puddle of melted snow “was a shock.” Nonetheless, he says feet quickly warmed in the surrounding hay.

    The effort was a side project for Hlavácek, who usually works on designing shoes to ease the pain of diabetic neuropathy. He says there are no direct applications of the Stone Age technology yet, but some of the properties of the hay, which also distributed the pressure that can lead to blisters, could have applications in modern shoes.

  3. State of Biotech

    Although investors have strayed from technology stocks in the past few years, a new review says good times are ahead for the biotech industry, thanks to strong science.

    Beyond Borders: The Global Biotechnology Report2003, produced by the consulting company Ernst and Young, reports that companies last year had more than 300 products in late-stage clinical testing, a 50% increase over 2001. At the same time, R&D expenditures rose 34% to $22 billion. And revenues for the estimated 4362 public and private companies worldwide went up 15% to $41.3 billion.

    Not all is rosy, however. Net losses climbed 116% to about $12 billion. And one-third of the 318 U.S. public companies, and 20% of the 102 European public companies, had less than 1 year of cash on hand.

    The report nonetheless predicts that the industry as a whole will be profitable by 2007 or 2010.

  4. News of the Weird


    A 4-week voyage in the Tasman Sea yielded a varied haul of fantastic deep-sea creatures last month. The expedition of New Zealand's RV Tangaroa, a joint project of Australia's National Oceans Office and the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries, explored habitats and collected samples from seamounts and abyssal plains around Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands down to a depth of 1200 meters.

    Unusual catches include: A shovel-nosed lobster; a humpback anglerfish equipped with a glowing-tipped rod to lure prey; black corals with serpent stars that act as their housekeepers; and a jewel squid with a huge left eye to look up at prey and a small right eye to look below for predators.

  5. On the Road of Life

    Biochemist Carl Franzblau got the idea from bloodmobile units being demonstrated at a hematology meeting he was attending: Why not a mobile biology lab? The Boston University graduate dean of the school of medicine pitched the idea to the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and in 1998 the nation's first such lab, a 12-meter custom-built bus, began touring the back roads of Massachusetts. Last week Franzblau and fellow biotravelers from three other states came to Washington, D.C., to extol the virtues of mobile biolabs and launch a drive for a nationwide network of them.

    Franzblau hopes to create a network of 100 mobile labs.

    Franzblau's MobileLab—a bus furnished with modern equipment that most schools cannot afford—has given 36,000 students and teachers a shot at college-level experiments, including DNA analysis and protein purification. The idea has inspired similar labs in Connecticut, North Carolina, and Maryland, with several more on the way. Now Franzblau wants to cover the country with 100 such labs, staffed by freshly minted Ph.D.s and schoolteachers. “What finer way to see the country, and inspire young Americans into scientific careers, than to drive around in a mobile lab through the hills of North Dakota or the inner streets of Chicago?” he asks.

    Franzblau is looking for federal legislators and biotech companies to pick up the tab, at an estimated annual cost of $800,000 per lab. He knows that he has a long road ahead. But he's convinced that the labs are an effective way to bring the wonders of modern biology to eager young minds and their mentors.

  6. Jobs

    Solar energy. David Kessler, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under George Bush and Bill Clinton before joining Yale University in 1997, is now headed for sunnier climes. This fall Kessler, 52, currently dean of Yale's medical school, becomes dean of the school of medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He succeeds Haile Debas, who is retiring after a 10-year term.

    Kessler says he was looking for a new challenge after having overseen a $515 million expansion of biomedical research at Yale. “UCSF is in a different place in its life history [and] has a higher energy level,” he says.

    Quieter role. Judith Rodin, the first woman president of an Ivy League university, last week announced that she would step down as head of the University of Pennsylvania in June 2004 after completing a 10-year stint. Rodin, a Philadelphia native who led the school through the controversial death in 1999 of a patient in a gene-therapy trial, will continue at Penn in the new position of chancellor. The 58-year-old psychologist said she made the decision for personal reasons.

  7. Awards


    Kyoto Prize. Harvard chemist George Whitesides (top), 64, and University of Chicago physicist Eugene Parker, 76, are winners of this year's Kyoto Prizes in the advanced technology and basic science categories. Whitesides is cited for developing a technique to assemble organic molecules into layers, which is driving advances in nanotechnology. Parker, now an emeritus faculty member at Chicago, is honored for his predictions of the existence of the solar wind. Japanese puppeteer Tamao Yoshida, 85, was chosen in the arts and philosophy category. Each winner receives $424,000 from the Inamori Foundation.

  8. Deaths

    Drowning. An opportunity to do research at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico ended in tragedy last week for two U.S. undergraduates. Physics majors Kristopher Reilly, from the New College of Florida in Sarasota (left), and Colin Ewers, from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, drowned while swimming in a river during a recreational hike through the lush jungle surrounding the radio telescope.


    Reilly, 24, was participating in a National Science Foundation program giving undergraduates a chance to do research, while Ewers, 21, was assisting Carlton professor and radio astronomer Joel Weisberg. The two jumped into a treacherous river on the federal reserve around the observatory and were pulled under, says Rafael Guzman, executive director of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency. George Ruppeiner, Reilly's adviser at New College, describes Reilly as an outstanding teaching assistant who was “really dedicated to helping other students understand astronomy.”