Random Samples

Science  09 Apr 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5668, pp. 203

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  1. Batting at Windmills

    Hoary bat


    Wind energy is supposed to be environmentally friendly—but ask a bat about that. Puddles of dead bats, apparent collision victims, have been found at the bases of wind turbines in West Virginia.

    Last summer, wildlife biologists found almost 500 casualties representing nine species near the 44 turbines at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia. Now scientists and bat conservationists have established a three- member group, funded by the U.S. government and the wind industry, to do a 3-year study on how many bats are losing their lives at wind power sites and what to do about it.

    Wildlife biologist Merlin Tuttle of Bat Conservation International, a member of the study group, says that scientists suspect the dead bats were migrating—and might even have been attracted to the sound of the turbines. The fix could be as simple as air foils that disrupt the wind vortices created by the towers, he says.

    In any case, “there's an urgency to the problem,” says wildlife biologist Alan Hicks of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany. “These [wind energy] projects are popping up all over the place.” In fact, another 366 turbines are planned for the Mountaineer site in the next few years.

  2. Ship Has New Underwater Career

    In a marine version of swords into ploughshares, a former Royal Navy frigate has been blown up and sunk off the Cornwall coast to create the United Kingdom's first artificial reef. The 113-meter vessel, the HMS Scylla, bought for $368,000 by the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, is now settling into the bottom of Whitsand Bay.

    Planners hope the wreck will beef up the local economy as a diving attraction as well as a scientific resource. The next phase of the project will be the installation of underwater Web cameras so aquarium visitors and scientists can keep in touch with reef goings-on. According to the aquarium, it will take about a decade for Scylla to develop into a full-fledged reef.

  3. GM Corn Dead for Now in Britain

    In the end, it wasn't the government but a biotech company that put the kibosh on what would have been the first ever commercially grown, genetically modified (GM) crop in Great Britain. Despite getting a qualified go-ahead from the British government earlier this month, the German firm Bayer Crop Science announced last week that it would drop plans to sell its herbicide-tolerant maize variety in the United Kingdom.

    Bayer first applied for permission to market its maize for animal feed in the U.K. in 1998. But government test requirements and the GM food debate slowed the process. Only this month did the government announce it would endorse the variety's approval by the European Union (Science, 12 March, p. 1590).

    But the government still had to decide where the crop could be planted, and the continued uncertainty made the variety “economically nonviable,” Bayer said in a statement, adding that it would probably be several years before it would be able to sell the product. By then, the crop would likely have lagged behind more recently developed varieties with more desirable characteristics, says Bayer spokesperson Lutz Knabe. “It's clearly a business decision,” says Les Firbank of the Center for Hydrology and Ecology in Lancaster. “They're entitled to make that decision. It doesn't have to do with the science.”

  4. Nazi Demography


    This circa-1938 Nazi propaganda chart shows the relative decline of Germany's “fit” population (symbolized by an athlete) and the propagation of “unfit” people over time if the unfit have four children apiece and the fit have only two.

    It's part of an exhibit on Nazi eugenics that opens on 22 April at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Featuring films, photos, and artifacts from 40 different collections, the exhibit highlights the roles played by doctors and scientists—including Alfred Ploetz, founder of the German “racial hygiene” movement; anthropologist Eugen Fischer, source of expert opinions on racial purity; and geneticist Otmar von Verschuer, who recommended sterilization of the “mentally and morally subnormal.”

  5. Flight of Fancy


    Materials scientist and entrepreneur Gregory Olsen will fly to the international space station aboard a Russian craft in April 2005 to enjoy the “kick of being in space for a week” and will do some science while he's up there.

    The 58-year-old founder of Sensors Unlimited in Princeton, New Jersey, left for Russia last week for training after paying $20 million to a U.S. company called Space Adventures. But unlike previous space tourists Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, Olsen says his adventure includes a research component—the use of infrared sensors from his company to analyze pollution in the atmosphere and observe agricultural systems on the ground.

    But Uzi Landman, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is skeptical of Olsen's research plans. “You can buy a ticket to fly into space,” says Landman, “but you can't buy a ticket for scientific competence.”

  6. In the Courts

    Conned. A biomedical researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, has been charged with bilking colleagues out of at least $160,000—which he then lost to Nigerian con men.

    State prosecutors last week alleged that Weidong Xu, 38, last year collected loans from co-workers to set up an Internet-based effort to fight severe acute respiratory syndrome in China. After the China-born Xu failed to repay the loans, Dana-Farber officials say the researcher's employment “ended” and that they contacted police.

    A lawyer for Xu, who worked on AIDS and other diseases, says the scientist sent the money to someone in Nigeria, who promised a $60 million return on a $600,000 investment. “He is a dedicated scientist, but he is gullible,” attorney Arnold Abelow told The Boston Globe. Xu is due back in court on 23 April.

  7. Awards

    Oncology prize. Cancer geneticist Frederick Alt received the Clowes Memorial Award from the American Association for Cancer Research at its annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, last week.

    Alt, a researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, won the prize for his examination of molecular processes that increase the human genome's tendency to develop mutations leading to cancer.


    Feeding the world. Plant biologist Monty Jones of Sierra Leone and rice geneticist Yuan Longping of China (both at right) are co-winners of the $250,000 World Food Prize, an annual award sponsored by Iowa philanthropist John Ruan.

    Jones, executive secretary of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa in Accra, Ghana, received the honor for developing hybrid rice strains uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions of West Africa. A cross of Asian and African rice varieties, Jones's “New Rice for Africa” (NERICA) has already helped thousands of poor farmers increase their harvests.

    Longping, who heads the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Changsha, Hunan, pioneered the development of genetic tools for hybrid rice breeding back in the 1970s. A revered figure in his country, Longping is quoted by Chinese media as having pursued a childhood dream of “rice plants as tall as Chinese sorghum, each ear of rice as big as a broom, and each grain as huge as a peanut.”

  8. Jobs


    Old World charm. Switzerland's version of Silicon Valley is gaining two of its leading computer scientists from the original. German-born Monica Henzinger and her Austrian-born husband, Thomas, are moving back to Europe this month to take up professorships at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, which the Swiss hope will someday rival the first home of the Information Age.

    Monica Henzinger, director of research at Google in Mountain View, California, studies algorithms for searching the Web; Thomas, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, focuses on designs for computer programs that combine analog and digital signals—for example, those that run cell phones. The couple say they want their 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to grow up in Europe. Thomas will start his new job this month and Monica debuts in the fall.