Random Samples

Science  22 Aug 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5636, pp. 1042

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  1. The Demise of Writing

    Three archaeologists have published a study of the death of three ancient writing systems that they say shows the enormous power of religious and cultural factors—in comparison to economic forces—in sustaining such systems. Yale University anthropologist Michael Coe says this is probably the first such study. Instead, “we're always talking about the rise of these systems,” he says.

    Classic Egyptian manuscript from the 2nd century A.D.


    Mayan archaeologist Stephen Houston of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, teamed up with Egyptologist John Baines of the University of Oxford, U.K., and Jerrold Cooper of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to compare Egyptian hieroglyphics, which disappeared around 500 B.C., with Mesopotamian cuneiform, which sank out of sight about 800 years later, and Mayan script, which petered out in the 16th century A.D.

    Because few people were trained in writing, ancient scripts were generally confined to special functions, such as government administration or religious ritual. Thus, “once a niche dissolved”—such as when the Spanish imposed Christianity on the Mayans—“a script community would find its investment without a clear dividend,” the authors write in the summer issue of the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History.

    Late Mayan glyphs from Yucatán.


    Fragment of cuneiform tablet.


    Cuneiform, however, did not vanish altogether until centuries after the languages it expressed had disappeared, continuing as a script of “learning and ritual, like Latin,” notes Coe. Similarly, the Egyptians sustained hieroglyphics for religious and literary use even after substituting other scripts for practical matters. These are “very striking” demonstrations of the power of beliefs and values in sustaining scripts, says Baines, and they bolster the case against the “new archaeology” of the late 20th century, which preached “materialist”—that is, technological or economic—interpretations of such events. Baines says that a conference on the demise of writing systems, the first of its kind, will be held next March at Oxford.

  2. Sidelines

    California dreaming. Nearly a dozen of the 135 gubernatorial candidates in California's upcoming recall election identify themselves as scientists or engineers. In the mix: Eric Korevaar of La Jolla, who has an engineering doctorate from Princeton and runs a consulting firm named The Science Artist; software engineer Georgy Russell of Mountain View, who has a Web site hawking thong underwear and other items emblazoned “Georgy for Governor”; and meteorologist Marc Valdez, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and does air-pollution modeling work for Sierra Research in Sacramento.

    Although it's certainly premature for any of them to bid “hasta la vista” to incumbent Gray Davis or frontrunner Arnold Schwarzenegger, the large number of candidates with technical training could help shatter the notion that scientists are apolitical. “I'm a meteorologist and a politician,” claims Valdez, who says he left academia in the 1980s after two “failed” postdocs: “If I don't know which way the wind is blowing, nobody does.”

  3. Rising Stars

    Winning combination. Pavel Batrachenko took top honors at the International Physics Olympiad in Taiwan last week, topping 237 other teenage contestants from 54 countries. An incoming freshman at the California Institute of Technology, the 16-year-old from Rochester, Minnesota, led a five-person U.S. squad to an unofficial first place in the annual competition.

    Sharing the glory were Daniel Gulotta, 17, an avid chess player from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, who finished first in theory and ranked 13th overall, and 17-year-old Emily Russell of Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, the highest-ranking female with a 21st place finish. The South Korean, Taiwanese, and Iranian teams turned in the next three best performances. China, a traditional powerhouse in the competition, chose not to send a team this year.

    Gulotta, Batrachenko, and Russell.


    Batrachenko plans to be a physicist. Joining him at Caltech is Russell, who says her heart is really in singing. Gulotta is going to MIT, where he plans to double major in physics and math, although he says math will remain his first love. “I became interested in physics,” he says, “because it allowed me to use math to describe the world in a precise way.”

  4. Jobs

    Global reach. The former head of the world's largest medical research charity is taking over a company that hopes to develop cell-based therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. British stem cell scientist Michael Dexter, who retired in March after a 5-year term as director of the Wellcome Trust, has been named chair of Stem Cell Sciences Holdings Ltd. The new Scotland-based company is parent to Stem Cell Sciences Ltd., which conducts research in Australia, the U.K., and Japan.


    Dexter, 58, once led a team at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester that was the first to culture blood stem cells and use them to treat children with leukemia. He has been a longtime advocate of embryonic stem cell research, arguing that the limitations of adult stem cells make it necessary to work with embryonic stem cells. The new company, he says, “holds great potential because of the diversity of stem cell types it works on.”

  5. Iceman Fights Back

    Scientists are still finding new twists to Ötzi's story, 12 years after the 5300-year-old mummy was discovered frozen in the Alps.

    Hand that held the knife.


    Scientists at first thought the Iceman perished alone while hunting, but in 2001 they found an arrowhead buried in his shoulder. Now it looks as though he was involved in some heavy fighting up to the end. There appear to be defensive marks on his hands, and he was probably grasping a knife when he died. What's more, DNA analysis headed by molecular archaeologist Tom Loy of the University of Queensland, Australia, has revealed blood from four other people on his clothing and tools.

    Loy believes that Ötzi, whose tools show him to have been a specialist hunter, was involved in a boundary-related fight while tracking ibex and chamois above the tree line. He thinks some of the blood was from a companion, who pulled the arrow out of Ötzi's back when he was shot. Loy's not stopping here: There will be more tests for animal blood to cast light on the man's hunting practices.

    Evidence of Ötzi's friends and enemies suggests that other icemen are awaiting discovery. The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology plans an expedition in the coming weeks to search areas near where Ötzi was found, which have conveniently been thawed by this summer's record heat.

  6. Scientists Irate Over Creationist Poll

    New Mexico's Intelligent Design Network (IDnet-NM) has managed to get the state's scientists stirred up on the eve of a vote by the State Board of Education on public school science teaching standards.

    IDnet-NM has been circulating the results of a survey of what it says were 16,000 scientists at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories as well as academics and New Mexico parents. Seventy-six percent of scientists favored “teaching alternatives to evolution,” it said, and 79% agreed that intelligent design should be taught.

    According to the group, its results from Sandia and Los Alamos are based on 217 responses. Marshall Berman, a former school board member and former Sandia physicist, says, however, that several of his former colleagues told him they never received such a survey. Sandia President C. Paul Robinson wrote the state education board telling it that “no such survey took place” at the lab. The American Institute of Physics has quizzed the pollsters, Zogby International, and pronounced the survey “dubious” based on factors such as its failure to identify respondents.

    The board meeting next week will set science education standards for the next 6 years.

  7. Deaths

    Pharmaco-crusader. Pharmacologist Louis Lasagna, whose research on the placebo effect revolutionized the testing and development of drugs, died in Newton, Massachusetts, earlier this month. He was 80.


    A proponent of stricter procedures for drug approvals, Lasagna contributed to 1960s legislation mandating that pharmaceutical companies prove the efficacy of drugs through controlled clinical trials before bringing them to market. His 1964 revision of the Hippocratic Oath, in which he emphasized compassion toward patients, is still read at some medical school graduation ceremonies.

    In 1970, he started the Center for the Study of Drug Development, which later became a part of Tufts University. Lasagna retired last year as dean of Tufts' Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences in Boston. He is survived by his wife, Helen, seven children, and eight grandchildren.

  8. Data Points

    To the finish line. Engineering schools across the United States are getting better at retaining their undergraduate women and minority students but are doing a poorer job with the rest of the class. An analysis of enrollment and graduation data for 94 institutions has found that the average retention rate for underrepresented minorities in engineering disciplines—the percentage of incoming freshmen who make it to the convocation ceremony—rose from 37% in 1999 to 39% in 2001. During the same period, the retention rate for nonminorities dropped from 68% to 61%.

    The analysis, presented by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) and the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology in a report published online at cpst.org, also shows that many minority-serving institutions—such as historically black colleges—have lower retention rates for the minority group they serve than other universities having fewer students from that group.

    To increase participation of underrepresented minorities in engineering, says NACME's Daryl Chubin, one of the authors, “it's important to reward not only those institutions that produce a large number of women and minority graduates but also the ones that do a good job of retaining their women and minority students.”