Random Samples

Science  28 Nov 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5650, pp. 1500
  1. Bronze Age Star Chart

    The world's oldest known star chart, this 3600-year-old “Himmelsscheibe von Nebra” (Sky Disk of Nebra) apparently depicts the beginning and end of the planting and harvest seasons as determined by the position of the sun, the moon, and the Pleiades constellation.


    The object, which archaeologists hope will shed new light on the astronomical knowledge of Bronze Age Europeans, was recovered from illegal treasure hunters last year in a sting operation. This month researchers reported at a Berlin press conference that new metallurgical studies prove the authenticity of the 30-centimeter-wide artifact. Radioactivity levels in the metal show that it must be more than 100 years old, and because it would have been very difficult to create a Bronze Age fake at that time, the team “is absolutely sure” it is genuine, says astronomer Wolfhard Schlosser of Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany. A sword and ax recovered with the sky disk resemble others dated to 1600 B.C.E., he says. Isotope studies suggest that the disk's copper was probably mined in the Austrian alps, and the gold in western Romania.

    Digs are continuing where the disk was unearthed—a hill where on 21 June the sun sets directly behind the highest peak in the Harz Mountains in central Germany.

  2. Testing Testosterone

    Seeking to stall time's march with testosterone may be popular in middle-aged circles, but scientists should think twice before launching a massive study of the hormone's risks and benefits, says the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Close to 900,000 people take extra testosterone, according to the report, Testosterone and Aging, issued this month. But the hormone's supposed bonuses—boosting muscles, enhancing sex drive, and improving memory, among others—have never been widely tested. There's also debate over whether artificially raising testosterone levels can trigger prostate cancer.

    “If you're going to ask people to be in a trial, you have to be able to tell them there's some real prospect of benefit,” says Evan Hadley of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Bethesda, Maryland. NIA sought advice from IOM when it was debating launching a vast testosterone replacement trial two summers ago. Now, says Hadley, the institute may adopt some of the report's recommendations, such as initiating smaller trials in elderly men with sexual dysfunction or depression.

  3. Ewe Look Familiar

    Sheep may all look alike to you, but not to another sheep. A few years ago, researchers led by Keith Kendrick of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, U.K., reported that sheep, like humans, have specialized neurons that focus on faces, and that they can remember faces for years.

    Haven't I seen you somewhere before?


    Now Kendrick and colleagues suggest that sheep's mighty powers of recollection might rest in part on the ability to form mental images in the absence of visual input.

    The team showed sheep a video, from a sheep's-eye view, while recording from face-sensitive neurons, grad student Mei See Man reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting this month in New Orleans, Louisiana. In some videos, the camera swept through a corridor and turned in to a stall to reveal a sheep. In others, the same camera path ended at an empty stall. The neurons responded similarly in both cases as the camera rounded the curve, suggesting that the sheep were generating a mental image in anticipation of seeing a face. Sheep can also match a frontal view of a particular sheep to a profile view that's presented later, indicating that they're able to remember the earlier image and mentally rotate it.

    In their ability to recognize faces from previously unseen angles, the highly social animals outperform humans, points out Nancy Kanwisher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This fits with the team's report that “a larger percentage of cells respond to faces independent of viewing angle than reported in primates.”

  4. Family Reunion

    Animals gather at a water hole. CREDIT: SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

    After 5 years of renovation, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History last week opened its vast new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, named after a major donor. Curator Kay Behrensmeyer says the 274 animals have been repositioned into striking poses, depicting more interesting aspects of animals' lives rather than their dullest moments.

    The Smithsonian has drawn fire for its associations with Behring, a big-game hunter as well as a businessman-philanthropist. Behring has given the Smithsonian a total of $100 million as well as 26 mammals from his collection. In answer to critics, Behrensmeyer says the California developer “interacts with us as a philanthropist. … What he does in his personal life we regard as independent.”

  5. Awards

    Living on the edge. When German microbe hunter Karl Stetter catches fire, his whole family feels the heat. This week the University of Regensburg professor's willingness to live on the edge earned him microbiology's highest honor: the once-in-a-decade Leeuwenhoek Medal from the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences.


    Stetter is the world's most successful cultivator of hyperthermophiles, organisms that thrive at high temperatures. Glimpsing them for the first time 2 decades ago in 80°C Icelandic hot springs, he thought, “My god, could there be life above the normal boiling temperature of water?”

    To find out, Stetter cajoled his microbiologist wife, Heidi, and their children into a family vacation on the Sicilian island of Volcano. While Heidi and 6-year-old Sabine waited in an inflatable raft filled with sampling equipment, Stetter dived to undersea vents to retrieve superheated water samples ranging from 105° to 110°C. Back at the surface, Heidi filled the bottles and Sabine took pH readings. The excursion netted at least four new hyperthermophile species.

    Germany's mandatory retirement law is forcing Stetter, now 62, to decamp for Diversa, a San Diego, California-based biotech company he co-founded. “I'm still excited,” he says. “There is more work to do.”

    Student par excellence. Big physics is a team activity. So when astrophysicist Arthur McDonald found out that he'd won one of Canada's top scientific prizes—and $762,000—he decided to set aside a portion of it for a student award to commemorate a graduate researcher who died earlier this year from colon cancer.

    “Andre Hamer loved science, and he was very, very good at it,” says McDonald, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. “And I'd like future students to learn that, like Andre, they can make substantial contributions to research while still in graduate school.”

    McDonald leads a 160-member team at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which has helped crack the mystery of what happens to solar neutrinos after they leave the sun. The Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, awarded by Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council this week, is McDonald's third major physics award this year.

  6. Jobs

    Back to sea. More than 30 years after helping launch deep-sea scientific drilling, Rice University geophysicist Manik Talwani is heading for Washington, D.C., to head the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), the latest incarnation of scientific ocean drilling (Science, 18 April, p. 410).

    The $160-million-per-year undertaking by the United States and Japan, with a European contingent likely, is “the largest, most ambitious geoscience program ever undertaken,” according to the announcement of Talwani's appointment. As the first president of IODP's central management office, Talwani must sort out the details of a unique funding arrangement and reduce cultural differences between the Japanese, who have little experience in international projects, and the Americans, who for 30 years have run their own ocean drilling program.

    He will start the job in January but work part-time for the first 4 months. Meanwhile, Talwani will tackle another divide: He'll fly a new kind of gravity surveying instrument across California's San Andreas fault.

    Good chemistry. Thirty-two years ago, Madeleine Jacobs bailed out of a graduate program in chemistry to become a journalist. Come January, she will take charge of the world's biggest association of chemists.


    As executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Jacobs hopes to build on 8 years at the helm of ACS's flagship publication, Chemical and Engineering News. “It's given me an enormous number of contacts and name recognition among the society's constituencies,” she says, “and an in-depth knowledge of the chemical enterprise.”

    Jacobs was a unanimous choice, says Nina McClelland, chair of the ACS board. “We recognized that somebody with a business or publishing background could be a perfectly good candidate—so we didn't make the Ph.D. a requirement for the position,” she says. Jacobs succeeds inorganic chemist John Crum, who is retiring after 20 years atop the 161,000-member organization.

  7. Milestones

    Towering figure. Few people have buildings named after them during their lifetime. But a new biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, dedicated last week, now bears the name of virologist Robert Shope.


    Still active at 74, Shope has helped Galveston become a magnet for infectious-disease research since coming to UTMB from Yale in 1995. The self-effacing expert on arthropod-borne viruses says he is “somewhat uncomfortable” about the honor, but he's happy that UTMB researchers can now experiment with some of the exotic agents—such as the Rift Valley fever, Junin, and Guanarito viruses—that he has spent decades chasing.

    The small, $15.5 million lab, financed by a private foundation, is the first of its kind at a U.S. university. But it will soon be dwarfed by a $150 million federally funded BSL-4 lab to be built next door (Science, 3 October, p. 33).