Random Samples

Science  26 Mar 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5666, pp. 1972

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  1. Entering the Demon's House


    Mysterious stone towers in Tibet have a new champion—a French adventurer who is funding an institute to preserve them.

    Over 5 years, Frederique Darragon, the Paris-based director of a foundation that builds schools in rural China, documented roughly 200 of the towers that dot the rugged landscape of southwestern China and Tibet for a TV documentary that aired on Discovery Channel last fall. Darragon drew a blank when querying locals about the origins of the tall, multisided structures, known in parts of Tibet as bdud khang, or “demon houses.” Although known to specialists, they “have not been properly mapped, surveyed, or studied to my knowledge,” says André Alexander of the Tibet Heritage Fund. Darragon took it upon herself to get samples of wooden floor beams carbon dated. Most towers tested appear to be several hundred years old, with one erected as long as 1200 years ago.

    Darragon's Unicorn Foundation now plans to provide up to $45,000 in seed money to Sichuan University in Chengdu to house a center for the study and conservation of the towers. Scholars are eager to learn more about the area. “It has been a dream of mine” to investigate the towers, says Achim Bräuning, a tree-ring expert at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. He aims to collect wood fragments from the older towers to get a better read on the history of the monsoon system during the so-called Medieval Warm Period, a possible analog to today's global warming.

  2. Big Spanish Dino


    Spanish scientists announced this month that they have discovered what could be the biggest sauropod, a giant plant-eating dinosaur, ever found in Europe. The beast, with a 1.78-meter upper arm bone and a 30-cm claw, lived in the Spanish province of Teruel between 110 million and 130 million years ago. Researchers estimate that the animal was 35 meters long and weighed 50 tons (the biggest ever, at about 50 tons, hailed from Argentina).

    Paleontologist Luis Alcalá, director of the Teruel Paleontological Foundation, says that the bones, excavated over the past 18 months in Riodeva, a mountainous dino-rich area, have been reconstructed from hundreds of fragments that include limb, hip, and spinal bones. University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Matthew Lamanna says the sauropod “is an exceedingly important discovery,” not only because of its size but for the relative completeness of its skeleton. Alcalá believes this may be a new sauropod species. If so, says Lamanna, “it will demonstrate that other types of sauropods also attained gigantic size during the Cretaceous.”

  3. Clashing Cow Advice

    Depending on which congressional briefing you attended last week, you might have heard the expert opinion that all U.S. cattle should be tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—or that blanket testing makes no scientific sense.

    Speaking to members of the Congressional Biomedical Caucus on 17 March, Stanley Prusiner, discoverer of the prions that cause BSE, said, “Only the Japanese solution of testing every slaughtered cow or bull” will ensure safe meat. Prusiner acknowledged a personal interest: He patented a test for BSE that is being marketed to governments.

    On the same day, George Gray, director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, said at a Senate briefing, “You could test all the animals going to slaughter, but you have to ask what you would learn.” Cattle that young don't typically show symptoms.

    Gray thinks the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken the right approach by focusing the testing on older, high-risk animals such as “downers” that can't walk. Last week, USDA announced plans to increase the number of cows—including apparently healthy ones—tested during the next 12 to 18 months from 40,000 to as many as 268,000.

  4. Deep-Field Extravaganza


    While astronomers worldwide hunkered down at their computers this month to scrutinize the Hubble Space Telescope's new Ultra Deep Field view of the universe (Science, 12 March, p. 1596), scientists in New York City were scouring Hubble's data before thousands of fascinated onlookers at the American Museum of Natural History.

    Starting on 9 March, scientists and university students worked nearly round the clock for 6 days at terminals beneath the white sphere of the Hayden Planetarium. During museum hours, team leaders fielded questions from onlookers. The setting was “stressful, crazy, and wonderful,” says Columbia University astronomer Arlin Crotts. And the event, conceived by astronomer Kenneth Lanzetta of Stony Brook University, was also scientifically productive. The Stony Brook group gauged the distances to a whopping 8172 galaxies, the faintest of which existed when the universe was 850 million years old. Crotts thinks the visitors learned how astronomers ply their trade. And he says the scientists made it clear that “Saving Hubble [which NASA has chosen not to maintain with another shuttle mission] was one of the major issues on people's minds.”

  5. Politics


    Clubbed. A prominent ecologist is at the center of a bitter dispute over the direction of the nation's oldest and largest environmental organization.

    The 700,000 members of the Sierra Club are currently choosing five members of the group's 15-member board of directors. One candidate is David Pimentel, an emeritus professor at Cornell University long known for his warnings that human population growth threatens the planet. Pimentel, 78, who has served on numerous National Research Council panels, says he's running to share his technical savvy and work to defeat President George W. Bush in November.

    But opponents allege that Pimentel and several other candidates—including a former Democratic governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm—are actually “front men” for anti-immigration groups eager to infiltrate the 112-year-old club and control its $95 million budget. Their campaign is seen as an attempt to overturn a 1998 club vote rejecting a call for curbs on immigration. Pimentel's critics point to his service on the governing or advisory boards of two groups—the Carrying Capacity Network and the Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America—that support immigration cuts.

    “It's ugly—I'm being called a racist,” says Pimentel, who told Science that he's never taken a position on immigration and doesn't even consider it a top environmental issue. And he's not active with either group mentioned above, he adds.

    The voting ends 21 April, and Pimentel says he's prepared to move on. “I don't expect to win.”

  6. Rising Stars


    Role models. High schoolers Herbert Hedberg, Boris Alexeev, and Ryna Karnik (left to right) have more in common than just their passion for science. The three winners of this year's Intel Science Talent Search also share an interest in communicating that passion to younger students.

    Hedberg, who won first place and a $100,000 scholarship for developing a new method for analyzing telomerase inhibitors, runs a program in his hometown of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, to help fifth graders satisfy their scientific curiosity. Alexeev of Athens, Georgia, who won $75,000 for minimizing the complexity of deterministic finite automata (a kind of ideal computer), helps run statewide math competitions for high school students. And Karnik of Aloha, Oregon, who received $50,000 for developing a new technique for etching transistors onto silicon wafers, tutors a Spanish-language physics class for elementary school children.

    “My first real interest in science was in fifth grade,” says Hedberg. “I want to give other kids the same kind of head start.”

  7. Awards


    Gruber Prize. Theoretical physicists Alan Guth (left) and Andrei Linde are the joint winners of the 2004 Cosmology Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation. Guth, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and Linde, a professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, receive the honor for their role in developing the theory of cosmic inflation.

    In 1981, Guth proposed the first comprehensive model for inflationary cosmology, describing the early evolution of the universe as it underwent rapid expansion. Later that same year, the Russian-born Linde—then at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow—came out with an improved version of the model. The theory has been refined further since then.

    The winners share $200,000.

  8. Nonprofit World


    United front. Forty-three Spanish organizations have joined forces to lobby their government to increase funding for science. Last week, the new Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies, representing 20,000 researchers, chose as its leader Joan Guinovart, a 56-year-old biochemist.

    The coalition will press the new Spanish government to raise spending levels for science from the present 0.9% to 3% of the country's gross domestic product by 2010. “Finland and Sweden invest four times more in science than we do,” he says. “To get to where they are, we can't be four-fold more intelligent or work four times harder.”

  9. They Said It

    “I hate to say it, but the NIH is one of the best agencies in the world. But they've turned into pigs. You know, pigs! They can't keep their oinks closed.”

    —Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM)

    opposing an amendment by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) to boost NIH funding by $1.3 billion, to $30 billion. The amendment was included in a 2005 budget resolution passed 11 March by the Senate. (Full text at www.sciencemag.org/sciext/news/032604.shtml)