Random Samples

Science  27 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5662, pp. 1287

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  1. Hieroglyphic Wrangle

    The recent discovery of a hieroglyphic-covered epi-Olmec stone mask has stirred up paleolinguists by casting doubt on the work of two scholars who a decade ago claimed to have deciphered Mesoamerica's oldest writing system.

    Mesoamerican linguists John Justeson of the State University of New York, Albany, and Terrence Kaufman of the University of Pittsburgh published their translation of a hieroglyphic-covered slab, retrieved from a Mexican riverbed in 1986, to critical acclaim in Science (19 March 1993, p. 1703). The stela is one of very few examples of the script of the 2000-year-old southern Mexican civilization.

    Newly uncovered epi-Olmec mask and close-up (inset).


    That publication may have been premature, argues linguist Stephen Houston of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He and former Yale University archaeologist Michael Coe were shown the mask, inscribed in the same language, in a collection whose whereabouts they won't reveal. Houston and Coe argued in last month's issue of Mexicon that using the Justeson-Kaufman decipherment to translate the 101 figures yields pointless repetition and strings of nonsense. “The [original decipherment] wasn't persuasive anyway, but the discovery of the new mask makes it even less so,” says Houston.

    In the absence of bilingual texts, there has been no way to verify the original decipherment, says Native American linguist Martha Macri of the University of California, Davis, who thinks difficult-to-mimic orderings of text on the mask provide strong evidence that it is genuine. It is “one of the most important discoveries in the past decade of research on American antiquity,” agrees Khristaan Villela, an art historian at the College of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Justeson, meanwhile, says, “Houston and Coe's arguments against our methods and results are easily answered, and we will answer them in detail in an appropriate scientific outlet.”

  2. Fishy Figure

    Humans aren't the only predators vacuuming fish from the seas. A new study estimates that penguins, auks, and other seabirds feast upon about 70 million tons of fish annually. That's just 10 million tons less than the annual human take, according to the 18 February issue of Biology Letters. Macaroni penguins are among the biggest gluttons, robbing the seas of 11.2 million tons annually.

    Zoologist Michael Brooke of the University of Cambridge, U.K., did the calculations based on the needs of about 700 million seabirds of 309 species. But he says there's not that much competition between birds and humans; seabirds may take only 0.4% of their catch from the open ocean, where most human fishing takes place.

  3. Global Warming and Terror

    A forgetful press aide has helped lift the curtain on some behind-the-scenes moves to defuse a controversial comment by Britain's chief science adviser.

    David King


    Last month, David King generated a slight stir when he wrote in Science that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism” (9 January, p. 176). The claim, seen by some as a slap at U.S. policy, even prompted Prime Minister Tony Blair to backpedal and call both problems of “critical urgency.”

    Still, the U.K. government was apparently worried that King might become a lightning rod when he gave a speech earlier this month at the annual meeting of AAAS (Science's publisher) in Seattle. In memos that a King aide accidentally left in the AAAS pressroom, Blair's office advised their science expert to decline interview requests. And if a reporter did question him about the warming-terror comparison, some spin was suggested: King should say that both are “serious and immediate problems,” but that “the value of any comparison would be highly questionable, [because] we are talking about threats that are intrinsically different.”

    In the end, King didn't need his script; he declined to take questions after his plenary talk, and his press secretary says the issue wasn't brought up by reporters.

  4. Burning Up NASA's Wires

    Every man, woman, and child on Earth visited NASA's Web site in the past month—or so you might guess from the numbers. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe recently bragged to Congress that the Web site had received more than 6 billion hits since the agency's Mars rover landings last month, which would mean a server-sautéing pace of more than 1000 per second.

    Brian Dunbar, NASA's Internet manager, confirms the figure. But it turns out NASA defines a hit as a request for information from their Web server, so downloading a page with, say, text and three pictures of the martian desert would count as four hits. The actual number of visitors, he says, is closer to 52 million. Still impressive, but it means that not every Himalayan monk and Senegalese cattle herder has logged on to follow the progress of the Mars rovers.

  5. Jobs


    Full circle. Hans-Dieter Sues's return to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is a homecoming of sorts. The 48-year-old paleontologist has returned to Washington, D.C., to guide science at an institution where he once worked as a postdoc and staff scientist before heading off to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto—first as a researcher and later as the overseer of research and collections—and, more recently, to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

    Known for his work on dinosaurs and mass extinctions, Sues plans to focus on new research directions, such as a grand biodiversity initiative, and on making the museum's science more accessible to policymakers and the public. And although the competition for funding grows fiercer—“each museum has to justify its existence,” he points out—he admits to having an advantage in his new post. “In a way, the National Museum of Natural History is the gold standard for natural history museums.”


    One-stop shopping. Eliot Phillipson has written enough grant applications as a clinical researcher to know how painful the task can be. Now he has a chance to simplify the process for his Canadian colleagues.

    As the newly appointed president of the $2.8 billion Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in Ottawa, the 64-year-old Phillipson hopes to persuade the nation's three granting councils to allow researchers to apply for infrastructure and operating grants in one shot. “Writing grant applications shouldn't become a full-time occupation for an investigator,” he says.

    Phillipson also hopes to persuade politicians to extend the life of the 7-year-old government creation beyond its scheduled expiration in 2010. “I guess I'm an optimist, and I think that we will find a way, or we need to,” says Phillipson, who for the past decade has been chair of the department of medicine at the University of Toronto. He'll start at CFI in July, succeeding David Strangway.


    Closer to home. It's not Boston's frigid winter that led climate change scientist Mario Molina to take a new job in Southern California. But it is the weather—or more specifically, the opportunity for the MIT Nobelist to be nearer to the smog of Mexico City.

    Molina, honored in 1995 for helping alert the world to the dangers of ozone-destroying pollutants in the upper atmosphere, is now on the trail of lower-atmospheric chemistry. And his joint appointment at the University of California, San Diego, and the adjacent Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he'll join co-Nobelist Paul Crutzen, will make it easier for him to work in the city where he grew up.

    Molina hopes data from his expanded project will help Mexican officials adopt economical remedies. “In the developing world,” he says, “there's a very large need to have the academic community interacting with policymakers.”

  6. In The News

    • Laurie Garrett, a science writer at Long Island's Newsday, has been named the first Gates Senior Fellow in Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. The fellowship promotes awareness and analysis of global health issues including AIDS, epidemic diseases, and bioterrorism.

    • The U.S. National Academy of Engineering has elected 76 new members, bringing its total U.S. membership to 2174. The academy also elected 11 foreign associates. Five of the new members are women. Full details are at http://www.nae.edu/

  7. Awards


    Clear signal. Faced with declining enrollments and a burgeoning cable television industry, electrical engineer Frank Barnes (left) of the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1971 launched a program combining electrical engineering, law, politics, and business. This week the National Academy of Engineering recognized Barnes's innovative curriculum with its Gordon Prize, a $500,000 award that Barnes plans to plow back into the program.

    “The need for blending technical knowledge with social, economic, and political understanding is even greater today than it was 3 decades ago,” says Barnes, who will use the money to enhance the program's distance learning component. The Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program has graduated some 2000 students and has been widely replicated.

    In addition, the academy awarded its $500,000 Draper Prize jointly to Alan Kay, Butler Lampson, Robert Taylor, and Charles Thacker for their contributions to the world's first practical networked personal computers.