Random Samples

Science  14 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5673, pp. 955
  1. Fish Snared in Politics

    Election-year politics appears to have trumped endangered species protection in the first test of Canada's Species at Risk Act. The federal government last month balked at listing 12 aquatic species—including economically important cod—that scientists say require immediate protection, apparently hoping to keep the issue out of next month's national elections.

    Harbor porpoise.

    CREDIT: NOAA

    Environment minister David Anderson accepted a special panel's recommendations to list 79 other organisms. But he delayed acting on the dozen species, including harbor porpoises and several populations of Atlantic cod, after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans expressed concerns about the move's potential impact on fishing and oil drilling.

    Under the law, the government now has 9 months to decide whether it will ignore the panel's recommendations (Science, 21 June 2002, p. 2123). But environmental lawyers warn of a gaping loophole: The clock won't start if the minister never formally presents the matter to the Cabinet. The Sierra Legal Defense Fund is contemplating a suit to pressure Anderson to do so. Further “delay can be deadly,” warns biodiversity specialist Arne Mooers of Simon Fraser University.

  2. Early Mayans Surprisingly Advanced

    Archaeologists have uncovered striking new evidence that ancient Mayan civilization was already highly developed by about 300 B.C.E.—centuries before the “classical” era that peaked 1000 years ago.

    The evidence comes from a city called Cival in the jungle lowlands of Guatemala at the base of the Yucatán Peninsula. “We thought the preclassic Maya were relatively unsophisticated and simple … but there's a whole civilization we're just beginning to uncover,” said archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, during a telephone press conference last week sponsored by his funder, the National Geographic Society.

    Cival, with three major plazas and five pyramids, is well preserved, despite the predations of looters, he said. One of the major finds is a giant 3-by-5-meter carved terra-cotta mask that researchers believe represents the corn god, “one of the earliest and best preserved of its kind,” said Estrada-Belli. The team also found a stone stela bearing a carving of a kingly figure. And in the main plaza was an elaborate jade offering to the gods of corn. “These offerings reflect the beginning of formal rituals and therefore Maya state society at a much earlier date [about 200 years earlier] than anyone thought,” said Estrada-Belli. The preclassical Mayans were also into astronomy; the main axis of the site is oriented to the rising sun at the equinox, celebrating the beginning of the maize cycle.

    George Stuart, head of the Center for Maya Research in Barnardsville, North Carolina, notes that “Things we know of as distinctive Maya culture are being pushed back earlier and earlier.” Estrada-Belli, he says, is getting to “the very heart of the area where Maya-ness began.”

  3. Where Did Yale Go Wrong?

    “I believe that George W. Bush does not give science and technology anywhere near as high a ranking as his father did, even though they're both Yalies.”

    —D. Allan Bromley,

    science adviser to President George H. W. Bush and former Yale University engineering dean

    on 4 May at the meeting of the American Physical Society in Denver, Colorado

  4. Quantum Hide and Seek

    CREDIT: TARUN BISWAS/SUNY, NEW PALTZ

    Caution! Objects on screen may not be exactly where they appear—at least not in “Quantum Focus,” a computer game that makes quantum mechanics child's play.

    Just as children get a feel for classical mechanics by playing ball, the game's designer, Tarun Biswas, a physicist at the State University of New York (SUNY), New Paltz, hopes they can get a feel for quantum mechanics by playing with quantum objects.

    In “Quantum Focus,” three quarks, red, blue, and green, float on the black screen. The quarks move oddly, invisibly bound together to move just as they would inside a particle such as a proton. The colors diffuse and shift, fading as the probability of the particle's presence drops. The goal of the game is to get each quark's wave function (the colored space where the quark might be) to collapse into the same point with the other two quarks, using intuition and adroit clicks of the mouse.

    “This game has the rules of the real universe, but it's a part of the universe you never see,” says Richard Halpern, a colleague of Biswas's at SUNY New Paltz. And it isn't easy, he says. See for yourself—at www.engr.newpaltz.edu/∼biswast

  5. Awards

    CREDIT: SOURCE: RANDALL ARAUZ; (INSET) JEFFROTMAN.COM

    Slice of life. Costa Rican conservationist Randall Arauz received the $108,000 Whitley Gold Award from the Royal Geographical Society in London last month for his efforts to protect sea turtles and sharks in the eastern Pacific.

    Trained as a biologist, Arauz raised money to do conservation work while working as a tour guide. Since 1997, he has run PRETOMA, a nonprofit group in San Jose, Costa Rica. In recent years, Arauz has fought the practice of stripping sharks of their fins, which fetch up to $160 a kilogram in Asian markets for shark fin soup.

    Developmental biology prize. British geneticist Mary Lyon has been awarded the $250,000 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. The award recognizes her discovery of the process of X-chromosome inactivation, which has enabled scientists to understand the inheritance of disorders such as hemophilia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

    Environmental sciences award. Mathematical ecologist Simon Levin of Princeton University is the winner of the $150,000 A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Levin was honored for his studies of the effect of scale on ecosystems.

  6. Jobs

    Public persona. Stanford Nobelist Robert Laughlin wants to breathe new life into the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics in Pohang, Korea, by focusing on a broader audience.

    Intended to be Asia's answer to the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, the center fell on hard times after Nobelist C. N. Yang completed his term as its inaugural president. The 10 member nations cut their contributions, and the president's slot remained vacant for 3 years until Laughlin was named last month.

    Laughlin, 53, believes the center, based at Pohang University of Science and Technology, lost support because its scientists were more interested in publishing in U.S. and European journals than in bolstering the discipline in the sponsoring countries. He plans to shift its focus from conferences and technical publications to producing “scientific literature” for a general audience. He expects to spend a month or so in Korea every year.

  7. Explorers

    Cicada catcher. Each summer for the past 30 years, Christine Simon has traveled up to 16,000 kilometers throughout the eastern United States in search of cicadas. Her goal is better understanding of speciation by studying different populations of these locusts, which emerge from the ground once every 13 or every 17 years and become a brief but noisy nuisance.

    This year, the University of Connecticut, Storrs, zoologist is heading to sites in Georgia, to look at what happens when broods of 13- and 17-year cicadas emerge together, and then to New Jersey to attach microtransmitters to cicadas to find out what they do and where they go during their brief adult life spans. Typical questions: “Do any cicadas move long distances?” and “Do female put all their eggs in one place?” The answers will help biologists make sense of this unusual lifestyle and provide insights into how new species arise.

  8. White House Late With Early Career Awards

    Fifty-seven of the nation's best young researchers came to Washington, D.C., last week to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. But, while the scientists were soaking up the well-deserved recognition, officials from the eight agencies that nominated winners were toting up the costs of some extraordinary foot-dragging by the Bush Administration.

    For starters, the prize was for 2002. Yes, 2002. The names of the awardees were actually submitted nearly 2 years ago but apparently fell into a bureaucratic black hole. “It's a very sad thing, the delay,” says one agency official. “I hope it doesn't say something about the importance of science to this Administration.”

    The delay also takes a real bite from some agency budgets. That's because of a policy at some agencies that requires an honoree to hold 5 years of agency funding at the time of the award. For the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, that meant extending some research grants, which average $350,000 a year, for another 2 years to ensure that all of its 11 winners were covered.

    The list of winners is three short of the usual 60, too. NASA could fill only four of its six slots because of the financial burden of its 5-year funding rule; NIH had two of its candidates nixed at the last minute because they weren't U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

    And what about the 2003 winners, whose names were submitted last summer? A White House spokesperson says to look for an announcement later this year.

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