Random Samples

Science  07 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5672, pp. 820

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  1. Here Thar Be Whorls

    A 16th century map by an exiled Swedish priest may contain the earliest accurate representations of ocean currents. The Carta Marina, published in 1519, features whorls and eddies off Iceland that correspond surprisingly well to satellite snapshots of where the Gulf Stream meets the Arctic currents.

    Ancient map shows modern currents.


    The Carta Marina, created by Olaus Magnus, is heavily adorned with sea animals and ships. But the whorls off the coast of Iceland aren't just for decoration, according to Thomas Rossby, a physical oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston. When Rossby recently came across a copy of the map in a book, he was struck by how similar the whorls were to the satellite photos of the North Atlantic. A direct comparison revealed that both the size of the whorls (about 100 km across) and their location were uncannily like the Iceland-Faroe front, where warm waters from the Gulf Stream collide with cold northern waters, he reports in a recent issue of Oceanography.

    The first modern map of ocean currents was made by Benjamin Franklin, in the mid-18th century. Medieval mapmaking was as metaphysical as it was factual; “Magnus was unique in taking a scientific approach,” says Philip Steinberg, a geographer at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

  2. Stem Cells on the Move?

    Supporters of stem cell research are leaning ever harder on the Bush Administration now that it's clear few of the 78 human embryonic stem cell lines approved by the president in August 2001 will be available for research. But there's no sign that the White House is feeling the pressure.

    Last week, 206 members of the House of Representatives—including 36 Republicans—sent President George W. Bush a letter urging him to “modify” his policy. The organizers claimed that 20 more members, enough for a slim majority, would support legislation on the matter, although no bill has been introduced.

    A prize catch is Representative Duke Cunningham (R-CA), a foe of abortion who also opposes research cloning but who climbed aboard the stem cell bandwagon after being deeply moved by the testimony of a sick little girl. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation says that 32 signers possess a “50% or greater pro-life voting record.”

    Most observers see little chance of any change in Bush's thinking before the November elections. But grassroots organizers are busy: Last week a group called New Yorkers for the Advancement of Medical Research was formed to lobby for stem cell-friendly state legislation. Also last week, an 18-state poll by the Civil Society Institute in Newton Center, Massachusetts, reported that 65% of respondents supported funding for more stem cell lines; only 17% favored the current restrictions.

  3. Face From the Past

    Newly uncovered mural depicts Orestes' friend Pilade.


    When Vesuvius erupted on the morning of 24 August in 79 C.E., it did more than eradicate Pompeii and Herculaneum. It also wiped out the nearby seaside community of Stabiano, a cluster of luxurious villas owned by wealthy and powerful Romans.

    Italian archaeologists and the University of Maryland School of Architecture have spent the last 6 years excavating the site, with plans to create an archaeological park. Meanwhile, an exhibit featuring murals of Roman mythology and artifacts from Stabiano opened last week at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

  4. Punk Architecture for MIT Geeks


    MIT may be the center of geeky squaredom, but its latest building, dedicated this week, is injecting some curves and wacky angles into the staid Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus. Renowned architect Frank Gehry designed the Ray and Maria Stata Center using as few straight lines and predictable shapes as possible. Plenty of science as well as art went into the design, including pedestrian, shadow, and wind-flow analyses.

    Occupying the site of the famed Radiation Lab built during World War II, the 67,000-square-meter complex will contain the university's computer science and artificial intelligence center, a lab for information and decisions systems, and the department of linguistics and philosophy. It also features a café, pub, garden, and child-care and fitness facilities.

  5. Awards


    What gap? For the first time ever, women have captured the top two awards given out by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Kristi Anseth (above), a chemical engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, this week won the Alan T. Waterman Award and $500,000 as the country's best young scientist (she's 35). And Mary Good, a former chair of NSF's oversight National Science Board, collected the lifetime achievement Vannevar Bush Award.

    Anseth is the fifth woman chosen for the Waterman, begun in 1976 and named after NSF's founding director. Good, dean of engineering at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, is the second woman to earn the Bush medal, first awarded in 1980. The science board also honored neurologist-writer Oliver W. Sacks and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for their contributions to public understanding of science.

    Energy prize. Russia's Fyodor Mitenkov and Alexander Sheindlin and Leonard Koch of the United States share the $900,000 Global Energy International Prize from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    Nuclear engineers Mitenkov and Koch, a former vice president of the Illinois Power Co., receive the award for their contributions toward developing nuclear fast reactors. Sheindlin, a physicist and founder of the Institute of High Temperatures in Moscow, is recognized for his work on the thermophysical properties of water and metals, which has enabled the design of both traditional and nuclear power plants.

  6. Milestones


    Legendary theorist departs. British evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith, who pioneered the application of game theory to biology, died at his home in Brighton on 19 April. He was 84.

    A student of the great British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, Maynard Smith revolutionized the field of behavioral evolution by showing that the success of an individual's behavior often depends on what other individuals do. He also made significant contributions toward the understanding of why sex has evolved.

    Although retired for 20 years, Maynard Smith visited his former lab at the University of Sussex almost daily and was talking science and writing up research on the day he died.



    No amateur. J. W. McNeil is proof that the golden age of astronomy isn't just for Ph.D. scientists with government grants and access to multi-million-dollar telescopes. Using a modest 3-inch viewing instrument in his backyard in Paducah, Kentucky, the satellite-dish technician spotted a new nebula in the constellation Orion. Dubbed “McNeil's Nebula,” the object gives astronomers the rare chance to watch a stellar nursery. The nebula actually flared more than 30 years ago, but the image wasn't noticed until McNeil spotted it in January.

  8. Buffalo May Lose Star Bioinformaticist

    Bioinformatics guru Jeffrey Skolnick is looking for a new job after the University at Buffalo (UB) restructured his research center. Skolnick was recruited with a $345,000 salary 2 years ago to head UB's $290 million new Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics. But last month, UB announced that the bioinformatics center will become one piece of a larger entity covering the life sciences; it will be headed by senior vice provost Bruce Holm.

    Skolnick came to Buffalo with much fanfare from the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. From “the outset,” the university planned to expand the center beyond bioinformatics, says Holm, and it was merely “a possibility” that Skolnick would head the expansion. Holm says his own experience with bench-to-bedside ventures such as proteomics and translational research will help in leading an enterprise that draws faculty members from UB and associated institutes.

    “I'm not qualified” in those areas, Skolnick agrees. But he says the UB administration didn't keep its promise of 10 new faculty bioinformatics slots—he hired only two—and that he's “exploring other opportunities.” Skolnick dismisses media accounts that his work style alienated UB faculty and staff, saying he pleads guilty only to “having high standards and wanting to build a world-class center.”