Random Samples

Science  05 Sep 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5638, pp. 1319
  1. Neandertals Not Caring?

    Did Neandertals care for their old and frail the way modern humans do? Two years ago, human evolution researchers announced that the evidence was in: a toothless, diseased 179,000-year-old jawbone from the Bau de l'Aubesier rock shelter in southern France. The team, led by Serge Lebel of the University of Quebec in Montreal and Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, concluded that the individual—called Aubesier 11—probably needed help to gather food and make it soft enough to eat. The team further detailed its case in the November 2002 Journal of Human Evolution (JHE).

    Skull of toothless but well-fed monkey.

    CREDITS: DAVID DEGUSTA

    But a Stanford University anthropologist is now challenging the notion of Neandertal compassion. In the July JHE, David DeGusta argues that nonhuman primates, such as chimps and gorillas, can survive in the wild with few or no teeth. He cites studies of primate skeletal remains, including those of two nearly toothless chimps, Flo and Hugo, who once lived in Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

    Trinkaus is not impressed. “People who work in the field with living primates … find it absurd that one would even query whether a primate can live in the wild without teeth—they don't.” But other anthropologists beg to differ. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, who studied Flo and Hugo in the park in the 1970s, says “chimpanzees [do] not need teeth to eat.” Katherine Dettwyler of the American Philosophical Association in Newark, Delaware, agrees. “My grandmother did quite well chewing all kinds of food without any teeth,” she says.

  2. Slowed Down by Speed

    Cocaine may not exactly fry your brain, but even modest exposure to speed-type drugs stunts growth in brain cells.

    In rats, it's been shown that an enriched environment will spur projections called dendrites on brain cells to sprout new branches and the tiny spines where synapses are found. To see if drugs interfere with this process, behavioral neuroscientist Bryan Kolb of Lethbridge University in Alberta, Canada, and colleagues gave young caged rats a dose of either cocaine or amphetamine once a day for 20 days. They then transferred half the animals into a stimulating playground for 3.5 months, after which they killed them and examined their brains. The drugs greatly inhibited the formation of new branches and spines, the team reported online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “It may be that the drug exposure has altered [the rats'] ability to learn from their experience,” says Kolb—which would make them a lot like human addicts.

    “It's a very important finding,” says Paul Vezina, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. Although it's clear that drug abuse can lead to long-term behavioral defects, he says this is the first study to show that drugs can block the effects of experience on the anatomy of the brain.

  3. Hot Spots in Oz

    Deep in the Australian Outback, a new company is using oil-drilling gear to drive a shaft into one of the hottest spots on Earth, in hopes of showing it's possible to get inexpensive, clean energy from water heated by hot dry rocks.

    CREDIT: AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY

    Hot dry rock geothermal energy has been a gleam in the eyes of renewable-energy boosters for more than 2 decades. But so far there's been no commercial production, although there are projects afoot in Europe and Japan.

    The Australian entry is Geodynamics, formed to exploit hot rocks in Cooper Basin, 1000 km north of Adelaide. It aims to complete a 4900-meter-deep well into 300-million-year-old granite this fall. It will then inject water to open up cracks and, eventually, produce steam to drive electricity-generating turbines.

    Cooper Basin “has the highest temperatures [over 250°C] at a depth of 3 to 5 km of any place on Earth outside of volcanic areas,” says geologist Prame Chopra of Australian National University in Canberra, who is involved in the project. If it flies, he says, “there's enough energy in that one area to provide Australia's [electric] energy for hundreds of years.”

  4. Architectural Life

    Animals and buildings have to deal with the same environmental forces. So why don't buildings look more like animals? Well, a lot of them do in a new wave of contemporary architecture inspired by animal forms, made possible by new materials and computer programs that enable engineers to carry out architects' every whim.

    Stingray-inspired beach house. CREDIT: MICHAEL SORKIN STUDIO

    In an exhibit opening on 18 September at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, models of 40 buildings are displayed alongside stuffed versions of the armadillos, tortoises, ospreys, and other creatures that inspired them. Among works chosen by curator Hugh Aldersey-Williams are a spinelike bridge designed by the London Eye team Marks Barfield; the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, with a birdlike top that flaps its wings; and the Waterloo International terminal by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, with an archway of overlapping glass panels resembling scales. “They are not necessarily conscious animalizers,” says Aldersey-Williams, pointing to a London office building designed by Foster and Partners with a ventilation system that sucks up air from the bottom and squirts it up through the building—inadvertently mimicking the feeding behavior of the sea sponge.

  5. Pumped Up for Progress

    Amadei (top) and students building a well in Mali.

    CREDITS: B. AMADEI

    In April 2000, Bernard Amadei volunteered to help build a school for poor children in the village of San Pablo, Belize. Once there, however, he encountered a stumbling block: The girls wouldn't be able to attend school because they spent their days hauling water. A civil engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Amadei thought that his students might design a solution.

    So the following spring, Amadei returned to San Pablo with 15 undergraduates and built a stream-powered pump for the village out of scrap metal. The villagers were grateful, the students enthused, and thus was born Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA).

    Since then, EWB-USA has sent nearly 100 students to nine countries to develop projects from shelters to irrigation systems. The average project costs $15,000, and the money comes from foundations, university grants, and bake sales. Last fall, Amadei linked EWB-USA's 45 chapters to similar efforts in North America and Europe. And next month the network will hold its first international conference in Boulder.

    In addition to helping communities in developing nations, Amadei hopes that EWB-USA will also make engineering education more socially meaningful for U.S. students. “We need to create a generation of engineers who are more sensitive to the 5 billion poor people on the planet,” he says.

  6. Rising Stars

    Will that be all? Waiting tables at his mother's restaurant, 23-year-old Tu Nguyen got so tired of translating orders from English into Vietnamese—the chef's native language—that he developed a computer application to do the job. His effort improved the restaurant's service, made his mother happy, and earned him $25,000 as this year's winner of Microsoft's Imagine Cup programming competition.

    CREDIT: MICROSOFT ARCHIVES

    Nguyen, a computer science major at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, is now helping five other restaurants install the application. A waiter enters orders on a pocket PC and, thanks to Nguyen's software, the translated order is flashed wirelessly to a computer screen in the kitchen in Vietnamese.

    Nguyen has funneled the time he has saved as a translator into developing an online ordering system for his mother's restaurant. And he's drafting plans for an entrepreneurial career in mobile computing—a goal he never imagined he'd pursue. When he entered college 3 years ago, he says, “I didn't know how to e-mail or surf the Web.”

  7. In The Courts

    Burned by the spotlight. Steven Hatfill, the former Army microbiologist labeled by federal authorities as a “person of interest” in the 2001 anthrax attacks (Science, 16 August 2002, p. 1109), last week filed a lawsuit accusing Attorney General John Ashcroft and other U.S. government officials of violating his constitutional rights. Hatfill claims that federal authorities damaged his reputation and ruined his job prospects and says that his conversations are being monitored. He is seeking unspecified damages from Ashcroft and other officials.

  8. Jobs

    Moving on. Richard Jackson, who led the National Center for Environmental Health during a clash with the Bush Administration over membership on its advisory councils, is leaving NCEH to become a senior adviser to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Succeeding him is Henry Falk (below), who will add the NCEH post to his current job as assistant administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

    CREDIT: CDC

    NCEH, which is part of CDC, is scheduled to be merged with ATSDR, which serves as CDC's hazardous cleanup branch. Some expected the job of overseeing the merger to go to Jackson, a former California health official who has led NCEH since 1994 and was once Falk's supervisor there. But sources suggest that last year's tiff with the White House over putting industry-allied scientists on panels (Science, 25 October 2002, p. 732) may have nixed his chances.

  9. Sidelines

    Unfair advantage. Veterinary radiologist Robert O'Brien is an udder-buster. He's pioneered the use of ultrasound to catch cheaters at bovine beauty pageants who use gas injections and liquid infusions to give udders a smoother, fuller look.

    CREDIT: JEFF MILLER/UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, MADISON

    Summer is an especially busy time for O'Brien and his team at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But the growing use of ultrasound and other crime-busting techniques may soon allow him to retire from the state fair circuit. “To be put out of the job would be great. … I still have animal diseases to find,” he says.