Random Samples

Science  12 Dec 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5652, pp. 1890

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  1. But Is It Art?

    Thirty-two thousand years ago, an artistic Neandertal rendered a human face in rock and bone, two French prehistorians claim. The find proves that modern humans weren't the only hominids smart enough to engage in symbolic expression, they say, but others have their doubts.


    The putative objet d'art was discovered in the La Roche-Cotard cave in France's Loire Valley, report Jean-Claude Marquet of the Grand Pressigny Museum of Prehistory near Tours and Michel Lorblanchet of the research agency CNRS. They believe that the chunk of flint was deliberately shaped to look like a face and that a bone was pushed into a naturally occurring hole in the stone to represent a pair of eyes. The artifact was found in a rock layer that also harbored stone tools that are firmly associated with Neandertals, they report in the December issue of Antiquity.

    But although “the stone is obviously worked, that doesn't make it a face,” says zooarchaeologist Nerissa Russell of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And even an archaeologist who has long argued that Neandertals were the cognitive equals of modern humans is skeptical that the doodad is a work of art. It's possible “that the block was used as a weight, perhaps for a tent, and that the bone was stuck in the hole to facilitate the fixation of a thread,” say Francesco d'Errico of the University of Bordeaux.

    Art or no, the Neandertal's handiwork is now a museum piece. But its significance may always be in the eye of the beholder.

  2. The Not-So-Slippery Slopes

    Memo to skiers: Don't wait too long for that once-in-a-lifetime tour of the world's best slopes. Global warming may leave more than half of the ski resorts in Europe bereft of snow by 2050 and cook all nine of Australia's ski peaks by 2070, according to a new study sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme.

    Climate researchers expect average temperatures to climb between 1.4° and 5.8°C this century, and the balmier conditions could push up snowlines hundreds of meters, say tourism expert Rolf Burki and colleagues at the University of Zürich. That change would leave many ski resorts low and soggy, they reported 2 December at the World Conference on Sport and the Environment in Turin, Italy.

    For some, the demise of the ski industry may be easier to appreciate than the melting of polar ice or other effects of global warming, says Peter Frumhoff, an ecologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “This is what brings it home to folks in tangible ways.”

  3. Death Takes an MRI

    Television police dramas revel in showing the coroner up to her elbows in the bloody innards of a corpse. However, modern scanning technologies may soon allow forensic pathologists to crack cases without cutting into dead bodies, a team of Swiss researchers reports. Even so, some experts caution that a “virtual autopsy” can never replace the real thing.


    Used in combination, computerized tomography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can reveal the cause of death while leaving a corpse unsullied, say forensic pathologist Michael Thali of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues. In the past 3 years, they have performed 100 virtual autopsies on corpses from crime and accident scenes, followed up with traditional dissection to verify that the scans had accurately determined the cause of death, Thali reported 3 December at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago. A virtual autopsy might also prove more palatable to the family of the deceased, Thali says.

    The virtual autopsy could reveal subtle injuries, diseases, and abnormalities that are hard to spot by dissection and visual inspection, says physician George Lundberg, editor in chief of the electronic journal Medscape General Medicine. But scanning technologies cannot reveal the color, feel, and scent of tissue, and such clues help the trained professional pinpoint cause of death, he says: “The pathologist uses all the senses—except taste.”

  4. Tunnel Vision

    Geologists tagging along with a Spanish tunnel-digging crew have unearthed an eye-opening fossil display. Led by geologist Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Marco of the Institute of Economic Geology in Madrid, the researchers accompanied the workers in 2001 as they excavated a highway tunnel in northwest Spain. As the crew burrowed back in time, the researchers found more than 4000 fossils of 200 different species of marine algae, plankton, worms, and other invertebrates—including 14 species never seen before.


    The fossilized ecosystem is now sealed in concrete. But fossil fans can still see the Ordovician-era treasures—which are between 457 million and 490 million years old—on display at the El Carmen cultural house in Ribadesella.

    The tunnel measures a mere 1380 meters, but the insights gained from the fossils should stretch much further, says geologist Stanley Finney of California State University, Long Beach. In particular, the find should help researchers match Ordovician rocks from Spain to those from the rest of Europe and North Africa, he says. “Where once we had only scattered, incomplete knowledge,” Finney says, “now we have the best possible knowledge.”

  5. Jobs

    Going north. Lured by $2.3 million and a prominent pain research center, a leading U.S. neuroscientist has crossed the border to join the faculty of the University of Toronto. Min Zhuo, 39, who studies the intersection of chronic pain and memory, is the beneficiary of Canada's determined effort to reverse a longtime “brain drain” to the south.


    Zhuo was nominated by the University of Toronto in a national competition for a new $1.2 million research chair in neuroscience and mental health, funded by the private, Montreal-based EJLB Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Zhuo is also receiving $1.1 million through the Canada Research Chairs program, which was launched in 1999 and has lured dozens of researchers from abroad to Canadian universities (Science, 6 December 2002, p. 1879). Zhuo worked under Columbia University Nobelist Eric Kandel and headed up basic research at the Washington University Pain Center in St. Louis, Missouri, until this summer.

    The influx of government and foundation funds has “really helped turn the tide” in attracting top scientists, says Michael Salter, director of the University of Toronto Centre for the Study of Pain, which has four new tenure-track positions. Its first two hires have been outsiders: Zhuo joins Israeli pain geneticist Ze'ev Seltzer.

    Lower risk. The new director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis promises to be “less visible” on the policymaking front than his controversial predecessor.


    Economist James Hammitt (above) succeeds founder-director John Graham, whose often industry-friendly findings on topics such as cell phones and environmental regulation made him a target of advocacy groups. In 2001 Graham left the center to head the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

    A researcher at the center since 1993, Hammitt expects to expand its work in areas such as public health and risk communication. But he shares Graham's approach to running the center. “It's really important to interact with the industry people affected by regulations,” he says.

  6. Awards

    Great shakes.They didn't have the fastest computer around, but a group of computational scientists used what they had to win an “Oscar of high-performance computing.” Last month, the 11-member team headed by engineering seismologist Jacobo Bielak of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, won the 2003 Gordon Bell Prize for efficiently calculating how hard the ground beneath Los Angeles will shake in coming earthquakes.


    “I could be working on this problem all my life,” says Bielak, who bridges the sciences of seismic shaking and computation for the team from CMU, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center. One of their computational tricks was to fuzz up those parts of the subsurface simulation that didn't require extra computation for a realistic picture of ground shaking.

    The prize, established in 1988 by computer architecture pioneer Gordon Bell, “shows where we stand and where we need to go,” says Bielak. “We can't do what we want to do with our present computers or algorithms.”

    A day to remember. It isn't often that a scientist fails to show up to collect a $250,000 prize. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineer Robert Langer had a good excuse last week when the Heinz Family Foundation bestowed one of its five prizes on him for pioneering work in biomaterials, drug delivery, and tissue engineering. The 55-year-old Langer was in Haifa, Israel, to accept the $75,000 Harvey Prize from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.


    “It's an amazing feeling to see the work we've done, which started out as chemical formulas on the blackboard, saving people's lives,” says Langer, whose efforts have pioneered among other things the controlled release of anticancer drugs. Langer's wife, Laura, made the trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to join gerontologist Robert N. Butler and former Surgeon General Julius B. Richmond in accepting the Heinz prizes.

  7. They Said It

    “After 39 months of consecutive net job losses now amounting to 2.8 million, it has never been clearer that the United States … must push even harder to lead the rest of the world in nanotechnology. The race is one that the United States simply cannot afford to lose. And it begins in the laboratory.”

    —Russell Shade

    of the National Association of Manufacturers, commenting on a bill signed into law 3 December that outlines a 4-year, $3.7 billion program in nanotechnology