Random Samples

Science  02 Apr 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5667, pp. 44

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  1. High-Stakes Albatrosses


    Gamblers accustomed to betting on horseflesh will get the chance this month to try their luck with birds.

    Seabird biologists from the Tasmanian government and the U.K.-based Conservation Foundation have formed an unusual partnership with Ladbrokes—the world's biggest bookmaker—to track and time 18 Tasmanian shy albatrosses on their 10,000-kilometer austral autumn migration from Australia to South Africa.

    Ladbrokes is footing the bill for fitting 27 of the birds—from a total of about 50,000—with satellite transmitters so scientists can track how long it takes juvenile albatrosses to complete their first migration. Scientists are particularly interested in seeing where the birds come into contact with longline fisheries. Lured by the bait, an estimated 300,000 seabirds are accidentally hooked and drowned each year.

    In what they are calling the Big Bird Race (“the ultimate flutter”), Ladbrokes will take bets on the first albatross to reach Africa and the one with the fastest average speed. Each racer will be given a name and a celebrity “owner,” and bettors will be able to follow their picks on Ladbrokes' Web site.

    The race is the brainchild of Conservation Foundation seabird biologist Tim Nevard, who says the idea “just popped into my head.” Profits will go to seabird conservation. Organizers also hope the race will encourage countries to sign the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, established in February, which aims to reduce seabird by-catch.

  2. Bug Spray and Birth Weight

    Could exposure to bug sprays be shrinking the size of newborn babies? A new study suggests that was happening in New York City until two pesticides were banned 4 years ago. But the link is still unconfirmed.

    Scientists worry about low birth weight because it correlates with a host of negatives such as low IQ. To check if a result seen in animal studies holds up in humans, Columbia University researchers Robin Whyatt, Frederica Perera, and co-workers tested cord blood from 314 babies of Dominican and African-American mothers for levels of chlorpyrifos and diazinon, organophosphates that until recently were found in home bug sprays.

    In a paper posted online last week by Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), the team reports that babies with the highest pesticide levels were shorter and weighed, on average, nearly a quarter of a kilogram less than those with no sign of pesticides. Most striking, in babies born after the ban, blood levels fell and the link with birth size disappeared. “This is evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship,” says Perera.

    Others are more cautious. Epidemiologist Matthew Longnecker of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences notes that no link with birth weight was found in two other human studies in EHP. But University of California, Berkeley, epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi, who headed one of them, says it did find a link between organophosphate markers measured in mothers' urine and shorter gestation times. “The jury is still out,” she says.

  3. Forever in Amber


    Single-celled amoebae—almost entirely made of water—are exceedingly rare as fossils. But several hundred have been found in tiny pieces of amber formed nearly 100 million years ago in southern Germany. They represent the earliest occurrence of four species of freshwater amoebae—in the Phryganellidae and Centropyxidae families—that live on today. The fingernail-sized amber chips, formed from tree resin that flowed into ponds, were found in the 1980s. But only recently have their contents been identified, in the March issue of Palaeontology, by Alexander Schmidt and colleagues at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.

  4. A British Institution


    London's 204-year-old Royal Institution (RI), home of the United Kingdom's first dedicated research laboratory, will soon invite the public to see never-before-displayed notebooks and lab equipment of chemist Michael Faraday, whose lab is pictured here, and other noted British scientists. With $9 million in U.K. lottery proceeds, the RI announced last month that it will increase its display space 10-fold and put on view treasures such as the world's first electric motor and the original model of lysozyme (the first enzyme to have its molecular structure elucidated).

    Faraday's notebooks describe the discovery of the magneto- optical effect and other experiments that “made the modern world possible,” observes David Knight, a science historian at the University of Durham, U.K. The redevelopment is expected to open in 2007.

  5. Rebuilding an Injured Past


    A U.S.-trained delegation of Iraqi archaeologists and curators returns home next week to begin the daunting job of restoring the country's shattered museums. “We have a deep wound in our hearts,” says Hayat Jar-Allah (left), director of the Diyala Museum northeast of Baghdad, about the thousands of artifacts still missing. “You can't console a child missing its mother with a toy.”

    The program, funded by the State Department, enabled 22 Iraqis to study at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and to tour museums and historic sites in Philadelphia, New York, Santa Fe, and Colonial Williamsburg. “None of them has had an opportunity for training or professional development,” says Ellen Herscher of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, which organized the 5-week trip.

  6. Awards

    Abel mathematicians. A Briton and an American have won the second Abel Prize in mathematics. Michael Atiyah (top) of the University of Edinburgh and Isadore Singer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology share the $875,000 award, given by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, for linking two very different areas of mathematics: topology and differential equations.

    The two mathematicians developed the Atiyah-Singer index theorem in the 1960s, enabling the use of topological methods for proving theorems in differential equations. “It was one of the major developments in 20th century mathematics,” says John Milnor of the University of Stony Brook in New York.

    Working on the theorem and its aftermath “was a key part of my life for 20 years,” says Atiyah, who won the Fields Medal in 1966.

    • Danish environmental chemist Sven Erik Jørgensen and U.S. ecologist William Mitch have jointly won the Stockholm Water Foundation's $150,000 annual prize for their contributions toward preserving lakes and wetlands.

    • Geneticist Trudy Mackay of North Carolina State University in Raleigh received the Genetics Society of America Medal last week for her work on the genetic and environmental factors affecting variation in complex traits.

  7. They Said It

    “The argument that science funding is a long-term national investment does nothing to set scientists apart [from other special interests]. All that sets you apart is that scientists are the only group that thinks it's making a unique argument.”

    —House Science Committee Chair

    Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY),

    addressing a 15 March workshop at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York

  8. Money Matters

    Anybody out there? Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen last week announced that he would spend another $13.5 million to look for technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe.

    The Seattle-based philanthropist has already given $11.5 million to design the Allen Telescope Array—an assembly of 350 6-meter dishes. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is “one of the world's most visionary efforts,” he says.

    The instrument, to be located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory 400 kilometers north of Berkeley, California, is expected to begin operations by 2010.

  9. Explorers


    Memorable waters. Stanford University marine biologist William Gilly (seated) and environmental writer Jon Christensen set sail from Monterey, California, last week on a 2-month expedition that retraces a 1940 voyage by John Steinbeck and marine biologist Edward Ricketts along Mexico's Gulf of California. That 6400-km journey became the basis for their popular book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez.