Random Samples

Science  21 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5674, pp. 1106

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  1. Long History for Irish Pipes

    Archaeologists believe they've found Europe's oldest wooden instrument. A set of yew-wood pipes found last summer on Ireland's coast has been dated at more than 4000 years old—1500 years older than similar finds.

    Wooden pipes in trough.


    The six pipes were found lying in a wood-lined trough by archaeologists from Margaret Gowen & Co. (http://www.mglarc.com/), a Dublin-based archaeological firm, during excavations preceding construction of a new housing development. The trough was within a burnt mound believed to be a cooking site where Bronze Age dwellers heated water with hot stones. Radiocarbon dating of a wooden peg used to make the trough put the pipes at about 4100 years old. “The date was a total surprise,” says Peter Holmes, a London-based archaeomusicologist. The pipes are finely crafted and “much more sophisticated than one would expect” from Ireland at that time, he says.

    The pipes are of graduated lengths ranging from 29 to 59 centimeters. Holmes thinks they were likely placed vertically and attached to a bellows, operating on the same principle as a bagpipe—except that the pipes have no finger holes. The pipes rely on differences in length for variations in pitch, and Holmes says two of them make an octave on D sharp—which is also a pitch many Irish horns are tuned to.

  2. Mysteries of Matter

    Poke a hole in a liquid? Researchers have discovered a new twist on the behavior of grains suspended in fluid: They can make holes persist indefinitely in a mixture of water and cornstarch—if it's shaken at the right frequency.


    Robert Deegan and colleagues at the University of Texas, Austin, tried vibrating dishes of the mixture while poking holes in the surface with puffs of air. At frequencies above 120 Hz, the holes would stay open indefinitely. And when they vibrated the dish more forcefully, long fingers of fluid rose up from the rims of the holes and then fell after a few seconds, propagating holes and fingers until the entire surface was a writhing mass, they report in the 7 May issue of Physical Review Letters. Deegan and colleagues suspect that the quickly vibrating particles get jammed together when the hole tries to collapse; slower moving particles would slide past one another.

    Physicist Tomas Bohr of the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby says the findings could have interesting real-world implications. “There are so many strange mixtures of clays and magma. … Who knows what these systems are doing?”

  3. Flippered Flight

    Scientists may have hit upon a new inspiration for designing more efficient airplane wings: the flipper of the humpback whale.


    A humpback's flippers have a row of bumps called tubercles along their leading edge. Water swirls between the bumps, both increasing lift and minimizing drag, enabling whales to execute rapid 180-degree turns and other flashy moves, says biomechanicist Frank Fish of West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

    Fish and engineer colleagues tested 57-centimeter-long scale models of humpback flippers in a wind tunnel and, as they recount in the May issue of Physics of Fluids, found that they outperformed conventional straight-edged wings. Wings based on humpback flippers could do away with wing flaps and flow-control devices, minimizing the risk of mechanical failure and increasing fuel space, says Fish.

    Fish and his colleagues have “explained the function of the unique morphology of a very successful whale,” says biomechanics expert John Long of Vassar University in Poughkeepsie, New York. “In 10 years, we may well see every single jetliner with the bumps of humpback whale flippers.”

  4. Dino Dilemma

    Betty Grable's famous legs were insured by Lloyd's of London for $1 million some 50 years ago. Now the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina is trying to figure out the value of a less sexy treasure: a football-sized chunk of fossilized dinosaur poop.

    CREDIT: CHIN ET AL., NATURE 393, 6686 (1998)

    Weighing in at about 7 kilograms, the Tyrannosaurus rex coprolite was the largest known when museum fossil hunters found it poking out of the Saskatchewan mud in 1995. But the rock's very uniqueness makes it difficult to set a price. So museum officials recently sent a note to an e-mail list for paleontologists, asking for opinions. It's all part of a routine insurance assessment, says earth sciences curator Harold Bryant.

    Michael Sincak, owner of Treasures of the Earth Ltd. in Hollsopple, Pennsylvania, believes the coprolite would probably sell for $15,000 or more. But he's not sure, because nothing quite like it has ever been on the market. (You can get a small one for about $10 on eBay.) Scientifically, though, “it's priceless,” says Mark Goodwin, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Paleontology. “You're trying to put a square peg in a round hole when you try to put a value on it.”

  5. Awakening to Sleep Disorders


    Three companies developing therapies for sleep disorders have agreed to fund endowed chairs at Harvard University. Neurobiologist Charles Czeisler (at right in photo) will hold a chair named after Frank Baldino, CEO of Cephalon Inc., and David White, a professor of medicine, will assume a chair named after Gerald McGinnis, board chair of Respironics. Harvard is now looking to fill a chair named for Peter Farrell, CEO of ResMed, who (along with Baldino and McGinnis) is on the advisory board of Harvard Medical School (HMS).

    Each chair comes with $2.75 million. “This generous and timely support will greatly accelerate advances in sleep and circadian rhythm research,” says HMS Dean Joseph Martin.

  6. Jobs


    Torchbearer. A cassava specialist from the Congo will help spread cutting-edge biotechnologies among farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Mpoko Bokanga (left) next month will become the first executive director of the Nairobi, Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), established last year to negotiate access to patented seed and other technologies for African scientists and farmers. The group is backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, the U.S. government, and seed companies.

    Bokanga, 56, holds degrees from Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has spent decades working in tropical agriculture. But it was his “ability to build bridges in this politically charged field” that won him the job, says AATF board member Michael Trimble, president of Trimble Genetics in Johnston, Iowa. “We found somebody that could carry the torch.”

  7. Follow-up

    Closure. Anthropologist Anna Roosevelt and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago have agreed to withdraw all charges against each other relating to a lawsuit on gender discrimination that Roosevelt filed last year, after being fired by the museum in December 2002 (Science, 16 May 2003, p. 1085, and 18 July, p. 312). A 6 May statement by both parties calls the resolution of the suit “amicable.”

    Dishonorable degrees. Three managers at the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration are among 28 senior federal employees with degrees from diploma mills or other dubious institutions, according to an investigation by the General Accounting Office. The investigation, which came at the request of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs (Science, 31 January 2003, p. 659), found that 64 federal employees had spent $170,000 in taxpayer money on courses and degrees from such schools. Details of the report, presented last week at a committee hearing, are available at www.gao.gov/new.items/d04771t.pdf.

  8. Awards


    Mentor magic. Calvin Mackie (left) isn't your typical mechanical engineer—which is probably why the Tulane University professor and motivational speaker has received a 2003 presidential award for science mentoring from the National Science Foundation.

    When he was an undergrad at Morehouse College, Mackie, 36, discovered that his hardscrabble upbringing helped him connect with the Atlanta-area schoolchildren he was trying to get interested in science. As a grad student, he founded a company that pitches the idea that success is within every student's grasp—and that education is the key. “Calvin is who he is,” says Lee Fails of the College Board, who has used Mackie as a keynote speaker for its meetings. “He's not cut from the same cloth as most professors.”

    This year's awardees, honored for excellence in mentoring at all levels and of all groups, include nine individuals and eight organizations (see nsf.gov, press release 04-066).

  9. Rising Stars


    Strength in numbers. The country's first all-female engineering class graduates this week from Smith College, a liberal arts school for women in Northampton, Massachusetts. Five of the 20 are going on to graduate programs in science and engineering. Six of Smith's nine engineering professors are women, compared to a national average of 9.2%.