Random Samples

Science  12 Sep 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5639, pp. 1469
  1. Ancient Geeks

    A life-sized bronze foot unearthed recently in a buried Roman temple complex in London has revealed an 1800-year-old fashion faux pas. The scrap of statue, dated to the second century A.D., hints that Roman Britons wore socks with their sandals. “The fact that no toenails are shown, and that the strap goes over the end of the toes and not between them, suggests some kind of sock,” says Nansi Rosenberg, a Leeds-based archaeological consultant with EC Harris, which is managing the dig at a construction site. The foot, which would have been attached to a statue of a god or emperor, is just the second Roman-era bronze foot found in the U.K.

    Did gods wear socks? CREDIT: MUSEUM OF LONDON

    Although many Mediterranean statues of the time depict sandals, none show the now-ridiculed sock-sandal combo, says Rosenberg, who suggests that the fashion statement may be related to Britain's relatively cooler climate. The foot was uncovered in July, but its importance wasn't realized until more careful analysis last month at the Museum of London, where it will be on display. The rare find “is obviously from a well-made statue,” so the lack of definition between the toes is likely to be deliberate, observes museum archaeologist Francis Grew. The statue suggests a desire by Britons to put their own mark on local Roman culture, he says.

  2. Dmanisi Hominids Get Legs

    Bones discovered at a dig in the former Soviet republic of Georgia may help archaeologists better identify some of Africa's earliest human migrants.

    Diggers at Dmanisi, site of the earliest known hominids to have left Africa, have found some leg bones to go with the four 1.7-million-year-old hominid skulls unearthed over the past 4 years. The team, headed by David Lordkipanidze, this year found a complete tibia (lower leg bone) and a talus (ankle bone).

    The news is creating a buzz among anthropologists eager to know which hominid species first began colonizing the globe. These “postcranial” fossils “will help us assess how ‘human’ the Dmanisi people were,” says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. In particular, the scientists want to see “whether they had … shorter legs like the great apes and australopithecines or the longer leg[s] … we find in later humans.” The first two skulls discovered at Dmanisi in 1999 seemed to resemble those of the relatively long-legged Homo ergaster, the African version of H. erectus, suggesting that they walked with a long stride like modern humans. But in 2001, the team found a third skull with many features of the short-legged hominid H. habilis (Science, 5 July 2002, p. 26).

    Lordkipanidze, in Paris last week to receive a Prince Rainier III of Monaco anthropology research award, does not want to reveal any details until his team has had more time to clean and analyze the fossils. But whatever the answer turns out to be, says Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., “any [hominid] postcranial fossils from Dmanisi count as treasure.”

  3. Genes Swamped by Poverty

    Researchers mining data from a decades-old research project say they have new evidence that a bad environment can stunt the development of intelligence, overwhelming its genetic contribution.

    Psychologist Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and colleagues drew on the now-defunct National Collaborative Perinatal Project, which followed some 48,000 women in 12 cities through pregnancy and for the first 7 years of their children's lives. The researchers extracted data on 319 pairs of twins, including 114 identical pairs. Most families were lower middle class; 54% were black. One way to estimate heritability of a trait is to compare the correlations between fraternal twins to those between identical twins. A highly genetically determined trait will show more similarity in the identical pairs.

    When the researchers divided the group into those with higher and lower socioeconomic status (SES), identical twins in the high-SES group had more closely correlated IQs than fraternal twins had, resulting in a so-called heritability estimate in the usual range—0.72. But there was hardly any difference between fraternal and identical twins in the low-SES group, suggesting a heritability of 0.10. Conversely, the researchers found a strong influence of family environment in the low-SES group—an influence that has been found to be trivial in most IQ heritability studies, they report in the November issue of Psychological Science. Co-author Irving Gottesman believes the study bolsters the notion that more emphasis should be put on prenatal and early infant care among poor people.

    Psychologist Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry in London says that although the results are intriguing, he has doubts about their validity given the small sample size. In his own data—yet unpublished—on 2000 sets of twins in Britain, he “doesn't find the interaction” between SES and heritability.

  4. Ready for Visitors

    The American Museum of Natural History in New York City now boasts a cutting-edge Hall of Meteorites, reopening on 18 September after a 6-month renovation. Back on view is the famous 40-kg Johnstown meteorite that fell in Colorado in 1924, as well as the world's largest museum-based meteorite, the 35-ton, 4.5- billion-year-old Ahnighito, found by Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary in western Greenland.

    CREDIT: AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
  5. A Troubled Garden

    The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens may be a tropical paradise for some 20,000 plants. But the Sarasota, Florida, facility proved an inhospitable place for rainforest expert Margaret Lowman, who this summer resigned as its director.

    Lowman's supporters accuse former board chair Bob Scully, an avid orchard grower, of meddling. “He was micromanaging the gardens' affairs and constantly interfering with Lowman's decision-making,” says Jim Bausch, who quit the board in March over differences with Scully. Three other board members resigned in protest after Lowman was asked to resign. Donors have withdrawn some $200,000 in pledges to the gardens, over a fifth of whose $3.4 million budget last year came from private donations.

    CREDIT: SELBY GARDENS

    But Barbara Hansen, who succeeded Scully as chair in June, says the problem was that Lowman “traveled extensively and did not have time to manage the gardens.” Scully did not respond to requests for an interview, but Hansen says that Lowman's exit “hasn't affected Selby's affairs at all.”

    The 49-year-old Lowman, who came to Selby in 1992 and became its director in 1999, says her unexpected departure will allow her to focus more on teaching and writing. “And I have more time to spend with my two sons.”

  6. Jobs

    Switching tracks. After devoting a lifetime to cancer research, Alex Matter is moving to Singapore this fall to become the first director of the $15 million Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD) (Science, 7 February, p. 811).

    CREDIT: NOVARTIS INTERNATIONAL

    Matter, who retired last month as the company's head of oncology research, says his move into tropical diseases is less radical than it seems, because “modern drug discovery is very similar for different diseases.” Best known for helping develop Gleevec, a drug for chronic myeloid leukemia, Matter has also overseen efforts to develop protease inhibitors to block HIV replication. NITD researchers hope to use that approach to fight dengue fever.

    The new job gives the Swiss M.D. a chance to pursue problems that “have intrigued me for a lifetime,” he says. And at 64 he's hungry for quick results. “Given my age,” he says, “you can imagine I'm in a hurry.”

    From Southwest to Mideast. A conservative U.S. academic has been chosen to oversee the rebuilding of Iraq's shattered higher education landscape. John Agresto, former president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, will soon replace Andrew Erdmann as senior adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The appointment is for 18 months.

    A political scientist by training, Agresto is known in academic circles for his conservative stances, such as his opposition to affirmative action. His appointment could be seen by Iraqis as an attempt to impose a conservative ideology on the country's higher education system, says Keith Watenpaugh, an Islamic historian at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, who recently returned from Iraq and co-authored a report on the state of the country's higher education. Agresto could not be reached for comment.

    Rave reviews. Ellie Ehrenfeld is stepping down this month as head of the Center for Scientific Review at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) amid kudos for revamping the agency's grants peer-review apparatus.

    CREDIT: NIH

    Ehrenfeld, who came to NIH in 1997, has won plaudits for improving the system, including redesigning study groups to reflect the latest science and recruiting top researchers as reviewers. “A lot of it has been personal persuasion, a deft political touch,” says Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges. And business has been booming: The number of grant applications has risen by 70% during her tenure, to 66,000 in 2003.

    “What I came here to do is done,” Ehrenfeld says, and she's ready to move on. For the moment, starting 1 October she will focus on her lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where she studies the replication of polio and related viruses.

  7. Data Points

    A costly handshake. Research universities are cannibalizing their teaching staffs to lure scientific talent to their campuses. That's what researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, found when they looked at how institutions finance start-up packages for new researchers.

    Public universities generated 13% of their start-up funding by not filling teaching positions, labor economist Ronald Ehrenberg and his colleagues at Cornell's Higher Education Research Institute found in a poll of deans at 228 institutions. That figure is nearly twice the 7% for private universities, which typically have larger endowments to tap. “It's unfortunate that the educational mission of public universities is being compromised by the need to hire top researchers who have the ability to win big grants,” says Ehrenberg.

    Private institutions usually provide more generous packages, too. New hires in engineering command the highest figures, says Ehrenberg, with some private universities offering start-up packages of over $3.6 million.

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