Random Samples

Science  30 Apr 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5671, pp. 677
  1. Darwin in Italy

    Italian scientists are protesting a move by the education ministry to drop a requirement to teach evolution in elementary and middle schools, part of a major overhaul of teaching guidelines.

    As visitors to the Sistine Chapel can see, Italy has a long history of creationism, but the influential Roman Catholic Church has no objections to Darwinism. Rather, pressure may be coming from the far-right Alleanza Nazionale, part of the ruling coalition government. Members of the party sponsored an “Anti-evolution week” earlier this year in which one former member of parliament called evolution part of the “hegemony of the Left” in Europe and the “antechamber of Marxism.”

    The government's rationale, according to an education ministry official, is that students under 14 are far too young to be confronted with such complex material. But “physics and mathematics are also difficult,” points out biologist Mauro Mandrioli of the University of Modena. Leading scientists have launched a letter-writing campaign to persuade the ministry to change its mind. And Mandrioli is organizing a “Darwin week” in June in which universities and natural history museums across Italy will hold seminars on teaching evolution.

  2. Ear in the Sky


    Earth is bathed in an invisible sea of radio waves and other electromagnetic signals. Now a quirky new sci-art project plans to bring that unseen world to the public through a project called Sky Ear. To be unveiled in London during a 4 May lunar eclipse, it involves launching a “cloud” of 1000 electronics-equipped helium balloons.

    Brainchild of London-based artist and architect Usman Haque, the tethered balloons will be loaded with colored light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and tiny gaussmeters—used to detect electromagnetic flux—linked to cell phones. Radiation will cause the LEDs to flicker, while observers at the Greenwich observatory or on the Web will be able to use phones to tap into the sound effects. Random electromagnetic pulses generate sounds called whistlers and spherics caused by storms and lightning. They are “beautiful—the audible equivalent of the northern lights,” says Haque. A nearby airport prevents the tethered cloud from floating higher than 60 meters, but a second run of the event in Switzerland later this year should see it rise to twice that height.

  3. Training the Brain to Read

    Phonics tutoring of problem readers actually changes how their brains operate, demonstrates a new imaging study from Yale. The work shows that 8 months of phonics—a method that separates words into their component sounds, as opposed to the “whole language” approach—produces gains that persisted a year.

    The researchers, led by pediatricians Bennett and Sally Shaywitz, imaged the brains of 49 poor readers, aged 6 to 9, while they performed simple letter-recognition tasks. Instructors then gave 37 of the subjects daily phonics tutoring for 8 months, while most of the other 12 got ordinary remedial reading.

    Brain systems for reading. CREDIT: S. SHAYWITZ

    The phonics students made sustained improvements, and brain imaging showed “substantial normalization” of the brain's “reading pathways” (see illustration), the researchers report in the 1 May issue of Biological Psychiatry. In particular, their brains showed more activity in an area that recognizes words instantly without first having to decipher them. The work shows that in many poor readers, “the system is there but has not been activated properly,” says Sally Shaywitz.

    Educators need to dispense with the notion that because “children are hard-wired to speak,” reading should also come naturally, she says. “We're running 40% reading failure rates” as a result of that attitude, says Reid Lyon of the reading and language branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “The converging scientific evidence is very clear” that poor readers need to be taught the “building blocks” (phonemes) of words, he says.

  4. Rising Stars


    Epidemiology prize. High school students Robert Levine (left) of Lincolnshire, Illinois, and Benjamin Eidelson of Merion Station, Pennsylvania, each received $50,000 scholarships from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last week as first-place winners of the inaugural Young Epidemiology Scholars competition in Washington, D.C. Levine studied the practice of indoor tanning among students, and Eidelson ran computer simulations to test the effectiveness of different vaccination strategies in combating a bioterror attack.

  5. Awards


    Lighting the way. If you drive a car, listen to CDs, or use a computer, tip your hat to Nick Holonyak Jr. (left). Judges of the world's biggest award for invention did so last week when they bestowed on him the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The 75-year-old electrical engineering professor from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the inventor of visible light-emitting diodes (LEDs): tiny semiconductor-based lights that are at the heart of CD players and computer optical drives, and are expected to eventually dethrone incandescent and fluorescent lights in most lighting applications.

    “With inventing you are attempting to solve a problem within your reach, not trying to solve the world's greatest problems,” says Holonyak. But his LEDs could ultimately help address a global problem. Because today's LEDs are more energy efficient and last 10 to 100 times longer than incandescent lights, many believe they could drastically cut lighting energy use worldwide and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    Albany Prize. Molecular biologists Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer have won the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. Cohen, a Stanford Nobelist, and Boyer, co-founder of Genentech, receive the honor in recognition of their work on isolating and cloning genes in living cells, which laid the foundation for the modern biotechnology industry.

  6. Follow-up

    Sierra Club vote. As he had predicted, Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel last week lost out to five endorsed candidates in a controversial race for a spot on the Sierra Club's board of directors. Critics had charged that Pimentel was allied with anti-immigration activists trying to take over the $95 million environmental group (Science, 26 March, p. 1973). He finished 12th of 17 candidates.

  7. No Laughing Matter


    He never explained what a Higgs boson is, but last week U.S. literary icon Herman Wouk entertained a crowd at the Library of Congress gathered to hear him discuss A Hole in Texas, a new historical novel that examines U.S. science policy in the aftermath of the cancellation of the $8 billion Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) (Science, 3 October 2003, p. 41).

    The 88-year-old Wouk has called his 12th novel, which describes how Chinese scientists harness the power of the Higgs after Congress cancels the SSC, “a short, funny book on a deadly serious theme.” That theme, he explained to interviewer William Safire (left in picture), the political columnist and close friend, is the discovery by scientists of the “most powerful force in the universe”—the splitting of the atom—and its consequences: a growing pile of nuclear waste “that we don't know what to do with.” The subject “is so bloody serious and scary,” Wouk says, “that the only way to handle it is with laughter.”

    The audience included Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chair of the House Science Committee and a leading opponent of the SSC, a decision Wouk's book lambasts. Also on hand was NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who recalled how Wouk was prodded for years by other members of the exclusive, all-male Bohemian Club to write a science-based novel.