Random Samples

Science  20 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5661, pp. 1134

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  1. The San in Antiquity

    A new estimate of the age of rock paintings in South Africa's uKhahlamba-Drakensberg park may shed light on the history of the San hunter-gatherers, one of the oldest human groups.


    Previous work in this mountainous area, first settled by the San 8000 years ago, indicated that the paintings were less than 1000 years old. But new research using accelerator mass spectrometry has tripled the age estimate, scientists report in the February issue of South African Humanities. Lead author Aron Mazel, an archaeologist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., says that because there are 500 rock shelters in the park, containing thousands more paintings, further dating may reveal some even older than 3000 years. “It looks as if the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg rock-art sequence may be very long,” agrees archaeologist Chris Chippindale of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

    “We hope to organize the paintings in chronological order in the hope that, like a family photograph album, they can tell us a little more about how life evolved for the San people” over the millennia, says Mazel, allowing scholars to track the evolution of certain themes and find out if there were “periods of stress that led to increased episodes of painting.”

  2. Limits of Positive Thinking

    Positive thoughts are no palliative for cancer patients; neither will pessimism doom one to an early end, scientists in Melbourne, Australia, report from a study of lung cancer patients.

    Researchers at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre followed 179 lung carcinoma patients with no evidence of metastasized disease over a period of 8 years, from the time they were diagnosed. They gave the patients questionnaires to measure optimism both before and after treatment.

    Because optimists tend to take better care of themselves, some people believe they have a better chance of survival, says oncologist Penelope Schofield. But her team reports in the 9 February online Cancer that 96% of the patients were dead by the end of the study. And those who were still alive were no more optimistic than those who died within the first year.

    Schofield says attitude may still count in less deadly cancers such as those of breast and prostate. Nonetheless, Julia Rowland of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, commends the team's work, noting that forced optimism may be burdensome on patients and give false hope. “Some people believe that if you just think the right thoughts, you can ‘think your cancer away,’” she says. “That is untrue.”

  3. Forests Coming Out of the Mists

    The world's misty, shrouded peaks could get some help under a cloud forest conservation plan presented last week by the United Nations Environment Programme and its World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC).


    Defined as mountain forests with persistent clouds and mists, cloud forests make up only 2.5%—or about 380,000 square kilometers—of the world's tropical forests. But they are rich in flora and fauna and are also a vital supply of fresh water. Threatened by conversion from farming and ranching, they are also vulnerable to global climate change. “As the temperature rises, it causes the clouds to lift up and the forests are drying out,” explains Philip Bubb of WCMC. An estimated 90% of the cloud forest in the northern Andes of Colombia has already been lost.

    The new report, The Cloud Forest Agenda (www.unep-wcmc.org/forest/cloudforest), represents the first attempt to map cloud forests by charting the distribution of mountain forest cover in altitudes where cloud forests are likely to be found. The projections show that close to 60% of these forests may be located in Asia and not, as previously thought, mainly in Africa and the Americas.

  4. Better Than One?

    Always wanted a two-headed fish for your aquarium? You may yet get lucky.

    Huang Chang-Jen, a biochemist at Academia Sinica's Institute of Biological Chemistry in Taipei, Taiwan, was developing transgenic zebrafish to study muscular dystrophy. He injected 200 fish embryos engineered to express green fluorescent protein with several genes associated with apoptosis, plus a “muscle-specific promoter,” in hopes of observing the degenerative process in action.


    But 24 hours later, one of the developing embryos grew two heads. At first he thought it was a fluke. But a second try with another batch of embryos produced a pair of the two-headed beasts, which also sported separate hearts and other internal organs. Thinking he might be on to something, Huang contacted the Taiwanese supplier of the fish, which were developed in Singapore, and asked if there might be a market for two-headed fish. “They were not interested,” Huang says.

    So he returned to his lab—but with an added research objective: to generate more two-headed fish in hopes of learning what causes conjoined human twins. “We are now interested in the mechanism that causes this,” he says. One of the apoptosis genes also plays a role in right-left development, but researchers don't yet know if it is the culprit or why it might go haywire.

  5. On Campus

    Star-crossed. Four months after becoming Switzerland's second female astronomer, Eva Grebel needs a new job. Last month the University of Basel informed the German-born Grebel and her colleague, Ortwin Gerhard, that it would shut down the astronomical institute where they work and also trim several departments as part of a cost-cutting move. Astronomy doesn't attract enough students, officials said, and other Swiss universities cover the subject adequately.


    The 38-year-old Grebel, who is also the university's only female physics professor, came to Basel after leaving a tenured post at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg. She and Gerhard are hoping that an international letter-writing campaign will help persuade the university council to reverse the decision, which would go into effect in 2008.

  6. Jobs

    Rising sun. Ignoring the normal retirement age, molecular biologist Sydney Brenner has agreed to be the inaugural head of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.

    Currently at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, the 77-year-old Nobelist has actively promoted life science research in Asia and serves on the new institute's international advisory committee. These efforts make Brenner a perfect choice to “build stronger ties between Japan and Asia and the world,” says Ken-ichi Arai, a molecular biologist at the University of Tokyo and fellow panelist.

    The Japanese national government is hoping the new school, set to open in 2005, will be a model for academic reform, a hub for scientific exchanges around the Pacific Rim, and a boon to the country's poorest state (Science, 21 March 2003, p. 1832). Classes will be in English, and both faculty and students will be recruited globally. The institute expects to have a core staff of 50 scientists in time for graduate courses in 2007.

    Top draw. Physicist Gregory Boebinger has been named the next director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. The 44-year-old Boebinger, who specializes in studying the bizarre properties of matter under a large magnetic field, has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory since 1998. He will take up his new job this summer.

    “Greg is an outstanding scientist; I can't think of a second close candidate, at least in the U.S.,” says outgoing chief Jack Crow, who has headed the lab since 1992 and was instrumental in moving its headquarters from MIT to Florida State University (FSU) in 1994. While Crow goes back to research and teaching, FSU officials hope Boebinger will persuade the National Science Foundation to renew its support for the Tallahassee lab after its current funding ends in December 2005.

    A veteran's farewell. The Department of Energy (DOE) is losing its most experienced laboratory chief. Laser physicist Charles Shank announced last week that he would step down as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California at the end of the year. During Shank's 15-year tenure, the lab has expanded well beyond its particle physics origins into supercomputing, molecular biology, and nanotechnology.

    Shank will return to his work as a professor and researcher at the adjoining University of California (UC), Berkeley, where he holds several appointments. He will also help the university, which manages the laboratory for DOE, prepare an expected bid to hold on to its management contract. UC President Robert Dynes says the 60-year-old Shank has helped put the school in “a very strong competitive position” to retain the lab.

  7. Nonprofit World

    Giving back. The former secretary general of the European Science Foundation has returned to his native Spain to help build its research infrastructure.

    Last month Enric Banda took over the Catalan Research Foundation (FCR), a nonprofit that among other things tries to get the private sector to spend more on research and to attract Spaniards now working abroad. Funded by the state government and eight private companies, FCR has in the past 15 years set up a supercomputing center and a high-performance optical fiber network linking 40 universities and research centers.