Random Samples

Science  16 Apr 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5669, pp. 386

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  1. The Sub That Disappeared

    This weekend thousands of Civil War buffs will converge on Charleston, South Carolina, to honor eight men who died 140 years ago in the world's first successful submarine attack. The Confederate sub H. L. Hunley torpedoed and sank the North's U.S.S. Housatonic in February 1864 during a blockade of the harbor. But the Hunley and its crew disappeared right after the attack.

    Painting depicting the final mission of the Hunley.


    In 2000 the vessel was raised from 10 meters of sea and silt. But why it sank remains a mystery. Senior Conservator Paul Mardikian calls it the “Civil War Pompeii” because sediment flooded the sub, immobilizing the crew members at their posts. In probing for the cause, scientists' biggest problem is corrosion: No ship has been brought up from the sea and survived more than a few years, says materials scientist Michael Drews of Clemson University. So the sub is being preserved in a 340,000-liter tank, which submerges the boat at night in fresh water and drains out in the morning to allow the crew to take x-rays and gamma rays of its cracks and joints. In a progress report published in this month's International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, the team members report that they are running a weak electric current through the hull to prevent oxidation by adding negatively charged ions to the iron while they evaluate other methods to keep the vessel intact. “We may just have to keep it like it is, in a state of suspended animation, and let the technology evolve,” says Drews.

  2. Researchers Have Beef With Brazil Ranchers

    Cattle grazing in felled Amazon jungle.


    The steady elimination of foot-and-mouth disease in Brazilian cattle is wreaking havoc on the Amazonian rainforest, according to a report released on 2 April. The link: rising exports, which “are driving up the national price of beef,” says David Kaimowitz, director of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia. Before 1998, the disease prevented Brazil from exporting beef. Then some southern states wiped out the disease and began to export beef. Last year, three northern states in the Amazon were declared disease-free, allowing them to ship cattle to satisfy domestic demand in the south.

    CIFOR says the population of cattle in the Amazon has doubled in the past decade, to more than 57 million, and that beef exports have risen fivefold in the past 6 years. In 2002, 2.3 million hectares of rainforest went up in smoke—mostly for grazing land—a 40% jump from the year before. The market has been further spurred by a currency devaluation, which made Brazilian beef cheaper for the rest of the world. “Brazil is now full-blown into beef exportation,” says Charles Wood, a sociologist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who studies development in the Amazon. “People need to pay attention.”

  3. Biotech Rap

    Nobelist Borlaug in 1970. Some people may think the Green Revolution was a good idea that went bad. But its progenitor, Norman Borlaug, still has fervent boosters. Last month he celebrated his 90th birthday, and plant geneticist C. S. Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama, who promotes agbiotech through his AgBioWorld Foundation, and some friends composed a rap song—performed by Prakash's 11-year-old son Rohan—to mark the occasion. A sampling from the “Norman Borlaug Rap”:

    Straight out of Iowa Norman came,

    then traveled the world, saw suffering and pain.

    Millions of people were starving, yo

    in Pakistan, India, Mexico.

    But just a few years after Norman came,

    they all had bumper crops of grain. …

    But then some people started to panic,

    telling the farmers to go organic.

    Technophobes started making a mess

    of Norman Borlaug's great success. …

    So Norman came back to defend

    high-yield agriculture with his friend,

    Jimmy Carter, ex-president,

    to help all the African residents. …

  4. Getting Burned in the Skin Trade

    Michael Holick, an endocrinologist at Boston University School of Medicine, is a leading figure among those recommending moderate sun exposure for strong bones and general health. But that argument so upsets colleagues in dermatology, who see sunlight more as a cause of cancer than a source of vitamin D, that this winter he lost his appointment in the department.

    “It was like the Inquisition,” says Holick, who remains a professor in other departments. Dermatology chair Barbara Gilchrest says she didn't want her department associated with Holick's message, which she says is “professionally irresponsible” and “very dangerous,” because it encourages people to use tanning parlors.

    The Sun Safety Alliance, a group supported by sunscreen manufacturers, compares Holick's position to advocating “smoking to combat anxiety.” But Holick, whose book, The UV Advantage, is due out next month, maintains that some sunshine is healthful. He adds that, although he's received substantial funding from the tanning salon industry, he has no conflict of interest and doesn't advocate tanning.

  5. Jobs


    Changing of the guard at McDonald. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew will be retiring as director of the University of Cambridge's prestigious McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in October. Succeeding him is Graeme Barker (left), an archaeologist at the University of Leicester and former head of its School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

    Renfrew, 66, who has headed the institute since 1990, will be “a hard act to follow,” says Barker. A leader of the so-called New Archaeology, which attempted to put the field on a strong scientific basis, Renfrew rewrote the textbooks on how and when early civilization spread from the Near East to Europe. Barker's research has focused primarily on the relations between ancient peoples and their landscapes, currently a hot topic in archaeology. Admired for his management skills, Barker says that he wants the McDonald to “continue to do what it does best,” which is to nurture research “in the pursuit of major insights into the history of our species.”

    Heading west. Chemist Marye Anne Fox has been picked as the next chancellor of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Robert C. Dynes, president of the UC system, chose her to take over his old job. Currently chancellor of North Carolina State University, Fox, 56, says she is “just delighted. UCSD is an incredible institution.” Dynes calls her “a fine teacher and mentor, a dedicated researcher, and a seasoned administrator of a large and active public research institution.” The state regents were expected to approve her selection this week to start in July.

  6. Milestones

    Too late. The U.S. government has decided to lift sanctions against prominent Russian chemist and Army General Anatoly Kuntsevich. Kuntsevich, who was involved in anti-chemical warfare activities, was sanctioned in 1995 because U.S. officials believed he was engaged in transfers of chemical weapons materials to the Middle East. But the announcement, published 1 April in the Federal Register, says the government now has “reliable information” that he is no longer involved in such activities. How does it know? Kuntsevich died 2 years ago, at age 68. His colleagues say his name should never have been dragged through the mud.

  7. Explorers


    Mars gets women. Jennifer Trosper, mission operations manager for the Spirit rover, wanted a better way to relate to the machine that has consumed her life since its arrival on Mars in January. So Trosper took to referring to Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, as “she” in press conferences. Soon, the entire team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, was talking about two women crawling around the planet.

    Although Trosper can point to a female namesake (Sojourner Truth) for the first Mars rover in 1997, she need have looked no further than her own team for justification. Fully one-third of the mission's engineers are women, a dramatic rise from their near invisibility during the Viking missions of the 1970s. “It's forming the new generation of space explorers,” she says. In fact, gender may not be an issue for her successors. The winner of NASA's rover-naming contest, 10-year-old Sofi Collis of Scottsdale, Arizona, declares firmly that while Spirit is a girl, Opportunity is a boy.