News this Week

Science  02 Jul 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5680, pp. 24

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  1. POLIO

    Health Workers Scramble to Contain African Epidemic

    1. Leslie Roberts

    Global health officials are bracing for the worst polio epidemic in years in west and central Africa, and they are scrambling for funds to prevent a continent-wide disaster. The situation, although not unexpected, turned grim with this week's report of 60 new cases in Nigeria, the source of the epidemic, for a total of 257 by 22 June, and confirmation that poliovirus had jumped from that reservoir across to conflict-ravaged Sudan, where there had been no cases for 3 years.

    It's especially worrisome that these cases are occurring in the so-called low season, when poliovirus transmission typically ebbs. “We see a virus and an epidemic that is gathering steam going into the high season,” warned Bruce Aylward, director of the World Health Organization's (WHO's) eradication effort, at a press briefing. “No question, it will be a big year. We can't stop that,” Christopher Maher, WHO's coordinator for country support, later told Science. “There will be at least 1000 cases in Africa. Probably close to that in Nigeria.”

    But UNICEF spokesperson Claire Hajaj insisted in a phone interview that a concerted effort to “close the immunity gap”—the number of children inadequately immunized against polio—can avert an even worse disaster. In Africa and other developing countries, children require as many as eight doses of oral polio vaccine (OPV) to ensure protection, as opposed to three in wealthy countries. The global polio eradication initiative—which includes WHO, UNICEF, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and national governments—hopes to conduct two massive, coordinated immunization rounds in 22 African countries, starting as early as October, announced David L. Heymann, WHO's representative for polio eradication. Their goal is to immunize 74 million children at least twice, roughly 1 month apart. And they are preparing for a third round “anywhere the virus breaks through,” Aylward adds.


    Global health officials are adding synchronized immunization campaigns in 22 countries in an attempt to stop the spread of polio from Nigeria. Ten polio-free countries have now been reinfected, most recently Botswana and Sudan.


    Many countries in Africa are now vulnerable, Aylward concedes. In mid-2003, when polio transmission was localized to just seven countries, the partners made a strategic decision to spend scarce resources hammering those hot zones with repeated rounds of vaccination and discontinue large-scale activities in polio-free countries. As a result, less than half the children in the region are now protected against polio. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, in particular, are at “very high risk,” notes Maher, given their low population immunity and abundant civil unrest. “If the virus makes it in there, we could see fairly explosive growth,” he warns.

    Even so, Heymann, Aylward, and others remain optimistic that they can bring most of Africa, if not Nigeria and Niger, under control soon, perhaps in 2004. Meanwhile, the other endemic countries—India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt—despite some pockets of vulnerability, seem on track for stopping transmission in 2004— provided they don't let up.

    The root of the current problem is the northern Nigerian state of Kano, which suspended vaccination activities in late 2003 amid fears that the vaccine was deliberately contaminated to cause infertility or AIDS in the largely Muslim population. The virus took off. By the end of 2003, Nigeria had 355 confirmed polio cases, and the virus had spread to eight previously polio-free countries.

    Epidemiologists in the global initiative originally hoped they could contain the new outbreak with preemptive vaccination rounds in 10 African countries in March 2004. But at the 22 June briefing, Heymann reported “alarming” news: Nigeria already had 257 confirmed cases, with 30 of the 37 states infected, and 10 countries, ranging from the Ivory Coast in the west to Sudan in the east and Botswana in the south, were reinfected. Although numbers remain low outside Nigeria and Niger, even a single case is considered an outbreak because the virus spreads invisibly, causing paralysis in just one of roughly 200 people infected.

    Insult upon injury.

    Polio has reinfected the Darfur region of Sudan, already wracked by conflict, disease, and starvation.


    The Sudan case was detected on 20 May, when a child in Darfur became paralyzed. Within a week, stool specimens had been sent to the national lab in Khartoum, which isolated poliovirus and sent isolates on to Cairo. WHO's Cairo reference lab confirmed that the Darfur virus was wild type 1, then forwarded isolates to Atlanta. There, after a couple of days of fast and furious DNA sequencing and phylogenetic studies, CDC confirmed on 19 June that the virus had entered Sudan via neighboring Chad, where an outbreak is under way. The Chad strain, in turn, was earlier traced to northeastern Nigeria.

    The Greater Darfur Region is in the throes of a vast humanitarian crisis; civil war has driven more than 1 million people from their homes, many crowded into refugee camps where starvation and disease are taking a grim toll. With water and sanitation sorely lacking, conditions are ripe for poliovirus to take off. And with so many people on the move, nomads as well as refugees, just finding the children is hard; giving the required multiple doses of OPV is tougher. But the campaign has had one small piece of luck: Health workers fighting an outbreak of measles began vaccinating in the camps in June and, in what now seems a prescient move, decided to deliver OPV at the same time.

    The strategy over the next few months will be to build a firewall of immunity to stop more importations of the virus. Then the partners will go back and try to cut the disease off at its root in Nigeria. That could take a while, although they are loath to admit publicly that they won't make the 2004 deadline. To pull it off, they need $100 million in new money—fast: $25 million by August, another $25 million by November, and the rest by 2005. (The money recently pledged by the G8, though welcome, doesn't cover these activities, notes Aylward.)

    Risk will remain high until Kano resumes vaccination. Although the controversy over vaccine safety has subsided somewhat, and Kano's governor has assured Heymann he wants to restart, the decision has not been made. The partners have stockpiled in the area some 10 million doses of OPV manufactured in Muslim Indonesia and certified safe by the Nigerian government. And this week Heymann is convening an expert advisory group to explore “any other possible options” in the event that Kano does not start immunizing.

    Maher and others expect this year's outbreak to rival that in India in 2002, which paralyzed 1600 children. If there is a silver lining, says Maher, it's that the 2002 outbreak shook India out of complacency; the country is now close to stopping transmission. But it's not there yet. “I feel sort of schizophrenic. I want to take care of Africa … but don't want to take my eyes off India and Pakistan,” says Maher. If they drop the ball in India, he cautions, it could take years to recover.


    Feeling the Heat, NIH Tightens Conflict-of-Interest Rules

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    As the House dived into a third hearing on consulting by National Institutes of Health scientists, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni last week pledged to make “drastic changes” to ethics policies as part of reforms already in the works. The changes include monetary caps on outside earnings, limits on cash awards, and posting scientists' outside activities on the Internet. The House panel lauded these steps but dropped a bombshell: It claims to have evidence that some NIH researchers may have ignored rules requiring them to report their consulting activities. Legislators also questioned whether two federal scientists gave “accurate” information when they testified earlier about a consulting deal.

    The implications of dishonesty darkened the tone of a probe by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee, which since December has been reviewing hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting payments to NIH scientists (Science, 21 May, p. 1091). NIH and its employees have insisted that they followed the rules. But, Zerhouni said, disciplinary action may be needed, “if there is a clear violation.”

    Zerhouni's rule changes would go beyond advice he received from a blue-ribbon panel in May (see table). For example, he wants to limit outside income for all employees to 25% of their annual salary. (The blue-ribbon panel's recommendation was 50%.) Zerhouni also plans to bar employees who file financial disclosure forms from holding any stock in a biotech or drug company, the policy of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    View this table:

    Cash awards to NIH scientists may be restricted, too. The committee had questioned a $40,000 prize from the University of Pittsburgh to former National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Richard Klausner, given after NCIhelped the university settle a lawsuit. Now, NIH will “scrub every award out there,” Zerhouni said, compile a list of bona fide awards, and screen every one for conflicts before it can be received.

    Zerhouni said he is taking these steps even though the new rules, which go far beyond those in academia, could cause harm: “For sure, we will have people who will leave the agency,” he warned, adding that recruiting may become more difficult. Subcommittee chair James Greenwood (R-PA) said he is “very pleased” with the changes.

    But the committee continues to seek information about past NIH activities and finds some new evidence troubling. Committee staffers asked 20 major drug companies to report payments to NIH employees. According to the committee, which has not yet released the data, this list of 264 contracts includes about 100 deals that do not appear in a spreadsheet of consulting activities compiled by NIH. NIH spokesperson Don Ralbovsky says the agency thinks that “many of the cases will prove to be OK.” Some were likely approved, he says, but did not show up in records kept by institute ethics offices, and others may be activities that NIH did not count as company payments.

    NIH is looking closely at one controversial case: Pfizer Inc. in New York City reported to the committee that it has paid Trey Sunderland, a scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, more than $517,000 since 1998, according to Greenwood's opening statement. Sunderland apparently did not seek approval for this activity or report it to NIH, Greenwood said. Zerhouni, who was informed of this case 4 days before the hearing, said the agency's “preliminary evaluation” has led to “grave concern” that Sunderland may not have followed required procedures. Sunderland did not respond to e-mail or phone messages from Science.

    Staffers have also been poring over testimony from an NCI and an FDA scientist who consulted for a competitor of a company with which NIH had a cooperative research agreement (Science, 28 May, p. 1222). Some committee members played audio clips from an 18 May hearing, including one in which NCI's Lance Liotta testified that his agreement with the company, Biospect Inc. in South San Francisco (now Predicant Biosciences), had been “placed on hold” since February 2004. The panel then showed slides of monthly paychecks received by Liotta until 1 May. An attorney for Liotta says the committee misinterpreted his testimony.

    The investigation appears nowhere near winding down: The panel is preparing more findings on another NCI matter and recently asked 15 other agencies to describe their employees' consulting activities.


    Signs of Ancient Rain May Stretch Mars's Balmy Past

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    In the evolving debate over water on Mars, the Hesperian epoch of middle martian history is a dividing line. Planetary scientists agree that before the Hesperian, in the first billion years of the planet, water flowed on the surface, cutting valleys and eroding impact craters. This time of relatively abundant surface water on Mars ended as life was appearing on Earth. Since the end of the Hesperian, what water remained on the frigid martian surface has almost always been locked up as ice.

    But on page 78, planetary geologist Nicolas Mangold of the University of Paris South in Orsay and colleagues report the discovery of dense networks of rain-carved valleys dating from near the end of the half-billion-year-long Hesperian, when geologists believe that Mars was completely iced up. “It's a really exciting paper,” says planetary geologist Oded Aharonson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. It's also provocative, he adds. Running water no doubt cut the valleys, he and others agree, but the role of rain and its exact timing, like so much else about water on Mars, will be debated.

    The unmistakable signs of flowing water show up in images from the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), which has been scanning the planet since October 2001 from the orbiting Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Mangold and his colleagues present two areas of treelike networks of valleys carved into the high ground above and draining into the great canyons of Valles Marineris. The branching valleys are as closely packed as those of typical drainage systems on Earth, they note, in contrast to the sparse valley networks usually reported on Mars. Some valleys run right up to ridge crests, which rules out spring-fed streams, because not enough groundwater could have accumulated there to create springs. And the valley networks are continuous and leave no blank areas, suggesting that the water was not flowing beneath snow or ice. “They're really best explained by rainfall,” says Mangold.

    Rain drain?

    Water cut dense valley networks in middle Mars history.


    This rain was still falling on Mars—episodically, at least—late in the Hesperian, according to Mangold and colleagues, despite the supposed long-term chilling. They point out that the surface cut by the valleys has been dated to the late Hesperian by a count of the craters formed by the steady drizzle of impactors since the valleys were cut. And the northern end of one drainage area was later covered by lava dated by crater-counting to the early part of the next epoch, the Amazonian. “I think the age is really well constrained by stratigraphic relations,” says Mangold.

    Other planetary geologists have no doubts about the water, but they are less sure about when it was there. Mangold and colleagues based their age estimates in part on a 1992 paper that reported crater counts over many regions of Mars, says planetary geologist Gerhard Neukum of the Free University Berlin. “It may not be so late [in the] Hesperian as they think,” he says. Kenneth Tanaka of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, the first author on the 1992 crater-counting paper, agrees. Additional “crater counts would make me feel more comfortable” about a late Hesperian age, he says.

    Some researchers suspect that the water might have been meltwater flowing under snow or ice rather than rainwater. Martian climate could have been much colder then—perhaps as cold as today, says planetary geologist James Head of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Mars could have been tipped farther over on its axis, as it is known to have been at times (Science, 11 April 2003, p. 234), so that the ice now at the poles fell as snow on the equator. When the planet tilted more upright again, the snow and ice would have melted. Melting snow or ice could have sculptured the landforms THEMIS spotted, says Aharonson. Images already in hand from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board the Mars Express orbiter may resolve these uncertainties in the coming months.


    More Data But No Answers on Powers of Adult Stem Cells

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    A new study may provide ammunition in the politically charged debate on stem cell research, but it is unlikely to provide any definitive answer on the key issue of whether adult stem cells can develop into many kinds of tissue.

    Several years ago, a handful of researchers claimed that bone marrow cells transplanted into radiation-treated recipients were able to do more than just regenerate the blood system. Progeny from the cells seemed to appear in other tissues as well, including lung, liver, and skin, raising excitement that a multipotent stem cell might lurk in adult bone marrow. Such a cell, some hoped, might be used instead of stem cells from embryos to repair damaged tissues or help the body heal itself. The best evidence seemed to come from transplants in which male cells, containing Y chromosomes, would appear in the tissues of female recipients (Science, 21 June 2002, p. 2126).

    However, others have failed to find similar evidence. And subsequent studies suggested that bone marrow DNA ended up in other tissues because stem cells fused with host cells rather than because they assumed a new identity.

    The latest attempt at confirmation takes advantage of two strains of designer mice, genetically modified so that their cells would turn a telltale green if fusion occurred. One strain carries a novel stretch of DNA that expresses enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP), which glows green when it is exposed to an enzyme called Cre-recombinase. When that gene is absent, it expresses β-galactosidase, which stains blue.


    Apparent bone marrow progeny (marked by red Y chromosomes) express a marker for epithelial cells (orange-brown) in the liver.


    In experiments described on page 90 of this issue, cell biologist Diane Krause, postdoctoral fellow Robert Harris, and their colleagues at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, transplanted bone marrow cells from male mice that carry the EGFP and β-galactosidase genes into female animals that are designed to express Cre-recombinase in all their cells. They reasoned that if cells from the donated bone marrow fused with host cells, they should express EGFP and glow green.

    Between 2 and 3 months after the transplant, the scientists killed the mice and analyzed the tissues, looking for cells carrying a telltale Y chromosome, which would indicate they arose from bone marrow cells. Indeed, in the lung, liver, and skin, they found that between 0.05% and 0.1% of the cells carried a Y chromosome as well as a gene expressed by epithelial cells—suggesting they were not blood cells. None glowed green with EGFP. That is evidence, Harris says, that blood cells can become epithelial cells without fusion.

    But others in the field say the experiment doesn't prove the case. First, says Austin Smith of the University of Edinburgh, U.K., it is particularly difficult to prove that cells carrying Y chromosomes are not in fact blood or immune cells, which would be expected to develop from the transplanted bone marrow.

    And even if the Y-containing cells are epithelia, Markus Grompe of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland says that the lack of EGFP “is not sufficient proof that fusion hasn't happened.” The Cre-recombinase enzyme is apparently not expressed in all the cells, he says. Or there may be reasons that lung or liver cells don't express the inserted genes even if they fuse with a cell that contains Cre-recombinase, he says.

    Harris counters that in damaged livers—where fusion is thought to be common—the team did see an example of a fused cell that glowed green.

    Smith doesn't rule out the possibility of fusion-free bone marrow plasticity. “It's possible that there could be some cells in the bone marrow that could give rise to muscle or even endothelial cells. I think one has to have an open mind on that,” he says. But the system that Harris and his colleagues used, he says, “is inherently risky. You need some other independent evidence” to prove the case.

  5. NASA

    Will New Lineup Transform or Deform Science?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Last week NASA made its biggest organizational change in more than a decade, leaving scientists wondering about the fate of $6.5 billion worth of research programs. Agency chief Sean O'Keefe dissolved two of three science offices, replaced NASA's scrappy space science chief, and promised sweeping changes to the agency's dozen field centers scattered around the United States.

    Under the new structure, earth science will be combined with space science into a new office of science, and biological and physical sciences will become part of a new exploration systems office (Science, 30 April, p. 663). Al Diaz will move from Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center to lead the science office, while former space science chief Ed Weiler replaces him at Goddard.

    O'Keefe says the changes will streamline an agency top-heavy with senior managers. “You won't have the old cast of thousands” reporting to the administrator, agrees one scientist. And NASA officials insist that realigning the two science offices is good news for researchers. “This strengthens our position by elevating science,” says Ghassem Asrar, former head of earth sciences and deputy of the new science office.

    But many researchers fear that the result could weaken future support for several disciplines. “It is obvious we've been downgraded,” says Gerard Faeth of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a member of NASA's biological and physical sciences advisory committee. “But then, physical sciences is already getting beat up pretty badly; it could hardly get any worse.”

    Space shuffle.

    Goddard's Al Diaz (left) takes a new post at NASA headquarters, opening the way for Ed Weiler to succeed him.


    Diaz has served primarily in management during his 4 decades at the agency and holds a master's degree in physics. “He's a survivor,” says one longtime agency official, noting Diaz's ability to avoid making waves. Weiler, on the other hand, is known for an acerbic tongue, making comments that occasionally rub people the wrong way.

    NASA spends nearly $4 billion on space science and another $1.5 billion on earth science systems. Although some earth scientists fear becoming second-class citizens in the new office, others are more optimistic. “I've been arguing that earth and space science need to be closer,” says Larry Smarr, chair of NASA's earth sciences advisory panel and a computer science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

    Some $1 billion in research in the biological and physical sciences will become part of the new exploration systems office. The former head of those programs, Mary Kicza, will move to a job overseeing integration of NASA missions. Kicza and other NASA officials say this research belongs in exploration because of its role in ensuring safe and effective human travel beyond Earth orbit.

    That is little consolation to scientists who already feel they are politically weightless. Faeth fears that research “could easily be submerged” in the exploration office, which will be run by Craig Steidle, a retired admiral, and staffed largely by engineers. And biologists are equally unhappy. “To make this less than an office is a very serious blow,” says Jeffrey Borer, a cardiologist at Cornell University's Weill Medical College in New York City and another advisory committee member. But Steidle promises that “science won't be a stepchild” in the new office.

    O'Keefe said that NASA's plan for the centers will incorporate suggestions made last month by a presidential commission. The plan will likely require congressional approval, too.


    Regional Society Debuts at Singapore Meeting

    1. Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—Next week, earth scientists from across Asia will celebrate reaching critical mass in their field at the inaugural conference of the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society (AOGS).

    The 5 to 9 July meeting in Singapore is the latest example of regional scientists asserting their place in a global discipline. “The time has come when we can build up our own scientific efforts without relying on European and American colleagues,” says Wing-Huen Ip, a space physicist at Taiwan's National Central University who is serving as the group's interim chair.

    Backers see the new group as a counterweight to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the European Geosciences Union. Since 1990, AGU has sponsored a biennial Western Pacific Geophysics Meeting that included many Asian scientists. But the Singapore meeting provides an opportunity “to focus on issues particularly important to Asia, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and the Asian climate,” says Yohsuke Kamide, a space physicist at Nagoya University in Japan and another key AOGS organizer. Soon-Ung Park, an atmospheric physicist at Seoul National University, hopes the meetings will also broaden existing pan-Asian collaborations, such as an ongoing study he is heading of the dust storms that sweep across east Asia every spring.

    In 1997, scientists from 14 countries and regions formed the Asia-Pacific International Molecular Biology Network. The Science Council of Asia, formed in 2001, brings together national scientific organizations from all fields to ponder such issues as sustainable development and Asian megacities. The new societies, says Ken-ichi Arai, a molecular biologist at the University of Tokyo who was instrumental in setting up the molecular biology network, demonstrates that “Asia may no longer be the passive recipient of the fruits of [scientific developments] in the U.S. and Europe.”


    U.K. Researchers Win Concessions on Draft Tissue Law

    1. Fiona Proffitt

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—British medical researchers are breathing a sigh of relief. The government has significantly modified a controversial bill regulating the use of human tissues collected as part of medical procedures and autopsies, after scientists warned that an earlier draft would seriously hamper research. The House of Commons approved the new version of the legislation, known as the Human Tissue Bill, this week, and it will soon proceed to a debate in the House of Lords. “It will still need fine-tuning, [but] to a large extent, researchers' concerns have been addressed. I'm very relieved,” says cancer geneticist Shirley Hodgson of St. George's Hospital Medical School in London.

    The Department of Health drafted the bill in response to a series of scandals in the 1990s over the removal and retention of organs without consent and presented it to Parliament last December (Science, 6 December 2002, p. 1867). The bill aims to provide a legal framework for the currently murky issue of consent. Although researchers welcomed the aims of the bill, some provisions caused alarm. Especially worrisome were clauses that would make it a criminal offense, punishable by a fine and up to 3 years in prison, to use stored tissues for teaching or research without explicit consent. “It would [have made] a very large amount of research not doable,” says Hodgson.

    Treasure chest.

    British researchers can make more use of stored tissue under the new law.


    Millions of tissue samples are collected in the United Kingdom each year as part of diagnosis and treatment, and some of that material could be valuable for medical research and teaching. Researchers say they cannot predict all potential uses for these stored tissues, particularly in rapidly changing fields such as cancer genetics, so getting consent for any future research could be difficult. “It is simply impractical to collect and store informed consent for use of leftover tissue samples from all patients who are treated in our hospitals,” says cancer geneticist Michael Stratton of the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton. Researchers argued that many fields, such as the genetic basis of breast and ovarian cancers, made great advances from retrospective analyses of samples taken many years ago, sometimes before genetic analysis techniques were even invented. “By the time it was recognized how important [the samples] were, it was often impossible to obtain consent” because the patient had moved or died, says Stratton.

    The government took heed. The new version of the bill no longer requires explicit consent for stored tissue, blood, and urine taken from living patients to be used in education and training or research, providing the research is approved by a research ethics committee and that the patient cannot be identified. Consent will still be required for removal, storage, and use of tissue and whole organs of deceased persons.

    “Overall, I think that this is an important step forward with significant benefits for medical research in this country,” says Stratton. One remaining worry, he says, is that the requirement to conceal patients' identities may remove essential information, such as family history, needed to establish the genetic basis of diseases. This concern is shared by Hodgson and Ron Zimmern, director of the Public Health Genetics Unit in Cambridge (a policy body funded by the National Health Service and the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust). “Especially for epidemiological research, unlinked data is no use to man or beast,” says Zimmern.

    Researchers have pledged to keep the pressure on the government to make further amendments when the bill is debated in the House of Lords. If passed then, it will come into effect next year.


    The Slow Deaths of Writing

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A diverse group of scholars ponders not just why scripts vanish, but why they sometimes survive so long

    OXFORD, U.K.—The biblical God punished humanity for its arrogance by creating innumerable languages—nearly 7000 at latest count. Writing systems, however, escaped the curse. During the 5 millennia since writing first emerged on the same Mesopotamian plain as the legendary Tower of Babel, fewer than 100 major scripts have appeared. But once born, they can be surprisingly durable. A handful of researchers are now taking a closer look at how scripts vanish to glean insight into how and why cultures disintegrate. They have found that writing systems show an amazing tenacity, even in the face of invasions, language changes, and religious upheavals. Ironically, the more cumbersome systems often prove the hardiest. “There is so much intense emotion invested in scripts, they tend to live longer than they have any right to do,” says Mayan anthropologist Stephen Houston of Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    Houston was part of an unusual collection of scholars who met this spring at the University of Oxford* to hash out a wide variety of script deaths and their meanings. Anthropologists and philologists presented case studies of more than a dozen scripts, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan glyphs, and Sumerian cuneiform, plus some less traditional recording systems (see sidebar, p. 32), in order to discern larger patterns in the scripts' last gasps. “Their decline is as worthy of investigation as their origin,” says Oxford Egyptologist John Baines. He and his colleagues believe that the death of scripts can provide new insight into cultural collapse and the relationship between a script and its culture. But they also differ in how far to go in comparing script disappearance.

    The 2-day meeting exploded some general assumptions about the way scripts live and die. Although in some cases a script and its culture slowly degraded in tandem, in other instances writing systems were decoupled from cultural crises and persisted in the face of natural or political disasters. Nor did scripts inevitably disappear when people began to speak a new language. “Scripts and language don't correlate in any simple way,” notes Baines; in some instances a script kept alive a language not spoken by the general population for 1000 years. And in case after case, scripts survived in pockets long after their culture was all but dead.

    Three millennia of Sumerian symbols

    Perhaps the most stunning example of a script's protracted life span is cuneiform, which began around 3200 B.C.E. to express the Sumerian language of Mesopotamia. More than 3000 years later in 75 C.E., a Babylonian scribe in a crumbling temple completed an astronomical tablet written in wedge-shaped symbols impressed in wet clay with a reed stylus. This work, the last dated example of cuneiform, was completed in the same way as the earliest known tablets. Scholars have long marveled that this awkward and difficult system, which required years of training, survived for so long amid Mesopotamia's turbulent history, fraught with foreign conquests, nomadic incursions, and merchants who brought new religions and languages as well as scripts.

    Cuneiform uses more than 400 signs, which can represent a word, a syllable used alone, or a syllable that can be combined with other syllabic signs to spell out a word phonetically; most scribes typically relied on 100 to 200 signs. Before 2000 B.C.E., the general population stopped speaking Sumerian and adopted Akkadian and eventually its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. Scribes used cuneiform to express the new languages but also continued to write in the old Sumerian.

    By the 7th and 8th centuries B.C.E., Aramaic—a Semitic language written in an alphabet and which, unlike cuneiform, assigns a sound to each symbol—was displacing Assyrian and Babylonian. Aramaic numerals made by workers on the back of stone cuneiform inscriptions in the northern Mesopotamian capitals of Assyria attest to the widespread use of the Aramaic language and symbols, yet cuneiform was retained for administrative and religious purposes. In 539 B.C.E., Mesopotamian political control came to an abrupt and permanent end with the arrival of Persian armies, followed by Alexander the Great and his Seleucid successors and then by the Parthians in 126 B.C.E. Along with the conquerors came new writing technologies, such as leather and papyrus for Aramaic and Greek writing, although their perishable surfaces have rarely survived.

    Yet through the centuries of profound cultural and political changes, numerous school texts show that scribes continued to teach Sumerian and Akkadian and to write in cuneiform, churning out graduates who took up posts in temples and palaces and among merchants, conducting a host of official tasks, from recording deeds to noting sacrificial rites. Cuneiform was almost never used to express Aramaic or Greek. “By the time Aramaic and Greek [languages] dominated, the scripts were robust enough to survive,” says David Brown, a philologist at University College London. The Seleucids insisted that slave and land contracts be made out in Greek script, but some legal documents continued to be written in cuneiform until as late as the start of Parthian rule. Finally, when the scribal schools ceased—perhaps in the 1st century B.C.E.—cuneiform's fate was sealed.

    Brown proposes that a boom in astrology —essentially a niche market for the script—kept cuneiform alive for the last few centuries of its existence. Around 200 B.C.E., he notes, there was a great flowering of astronomical texts. “This was a spinoff product of temple culture,” he says, because the Babylonian temples were long famed as centers of astronomical observations. “Elite scholars made money doing astronomy,” he suggests. Although the direct evidence for this is lacking, he argues that the prevalence of astrological tablets in these later years hints strongly at an economic basis for the continued existence of cuneiform guilds, or families of scholars. But 2 centuries later, Babylon's monopoly over the astronomy- astrology business weakened, Brown says, as more accessible Greek horoscopes spread through the Roman Empire. That shift, he suggests, pulled the rug out from under cuneiform's economic basis, although the system's existence may have continued for another century or two.

    Brown's theory has met with interest and some skepticism. “We don't really have any proof that doing horoscopes was lucrative,” says Jerrold Cooper, a cuneiform specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who thinks the temples supported themselves by agriculture rather than astrology. But Cooper adds that the appearance of the Greek-language horoscopes about the same time as cuneiform's demise does give credence to Brown's argument.

    Write like an Egyptian

    To the southwest, another great and difficult writing system was also finally nearing extinction, after thousands of years of use. In Egypt, as in Mesopotamia, a complex script arose at the end of the 4th millennium B.C.E., and by the start of the 1st century C.E., it still lingered in a few temples. The last inscription is found at Philae, a temple complex in southern Egypt, dated 452 C.E., says Martin Stadler, an Egyptologist at Germany's University of Würzburg. By then, Egypt's traditional high culture had been restricted for at least 2 centuries to temples, which increasingly were islands amid Greek, Roman, and Christian influence, and their priests were living a largely secluded existence. “The question is why did it [Egyptian script] persist for so long,” says Stadler.

    Unlike cuneiform, Egyptian writing was always tied to a single language, Egyptian. But the secret to its long life may be that it had evolved into various forms, written in different media for different uses, says Stadler. The primary form was hieratic, which was the daily cursive used for administrative purposes and typically written on perishable materials such as papyrus. Hieroglyphic was used for monumental stone inscriptions for royal and religious purposes. Around 700 B.C.E., another system, which scholars call demotic, appeared in lower Egypt, eventually replacing hieratic for everyday use.

    Thus when cultural challenges came—for example, during the Hellenistic control of Egypt, which began in the 4th century B.C.E. under the Ptolemies—the scripts had so many uses that they lingered. But the Roman conquest in 30 B.C.E. gave Greek language and writing—favored by the empire in the east—a further boost, and demotic was eventually overtaken by Greek for law and trade purposes. Still, Egyptian script persisted, primarily in the temples, which were not only tolerated but honored in Ptolemaic and Roman times. “The Ptolemies and Romans put enormous resources into Egyptian temples,” says Baines, at least in part to honor local gods and thereby win domestic support.

    The temples provided a last refuge, but even they withered during the economic crisis of the disintegrating Roman Empire in the late 2nd century C.E., according to Baines. In 394 C.E., someone scrawled demotic and hieroglyphic text on the Philae temple in the remote south; the following year, the Christian Church ordered all pagan temples closed. Although some demotic graffiti dates to 452 C.E., and worship continued at Philae well into the next century, nearly 15 centuries would pass until hieroglyphics could be understood again.

    The tenacity of Egyptian scribes through the centuries—despite cultural and language change—shows how scripts can linger even as their cultures are transformed. Scripts such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics require extensive schooling, bulky writing material, and significant financial support. Yet the very institutions set up to make this possible can prove remarkably durable, says Baines.

    A long death

    As hieroglyphics and cuneiform were falling into disuse, a new script was arising in the pre-Columbian world. Maya, which flourished in Mexico and Guatemala from 250 C.E. until 800 C.E., is made up of some 800 picture and syllable symbols that have not been fully deciphered, says Brigham Young's Houston. Like Egyptian, the script is closely linked to a single language, and like cuneiform it was closely tied to the ruling class and to religion, used to tell of rulers' exploits and to keep the sacred calendar. In this case the script mirrored its culture's decline, degrading into peculiar forms, yet it still managed to persist in pockets for a surprisingly long period, says Houston.

    A mélange of ecological, social, and political crises afflicted the 9th century C.E. Mayan empire, marking the end of its classical period and leading to a complicated series of disruptions still being debated among scholars. Mayan writing reflects these disasters—script vanishes abruptly and completely at sites such as Tikal in the southern lowlands, which may have encountered devastating droughts. Yet some sites, particularly in the Yucatán to the north, show only a gradual decline in writing, notes Houston.

    Overall, he notes a steep decline in the number of texts during this period and the appearance of glyphs without meaning, which may have been an attempt to imitate the script without understanding its rules. By the start of the 10th century, Mayan writing is drastically simplified and nearly illegible and irregular. Mayan classical culture never recovered fully from these disruptions, although small groups of scribes clearly persisted and passed on old traditions. But without a “court culture,” Houston says, there was no place for the “literary sculptors” of Mayan script to flourish.

    Maya revived later, as shown by the 13th century Dresden and Paris codices and numerous other manuscripts. It is a matter of some debate whether the script was dying in the 16th century when the Spanish arrived, as Houston maintains, or whether it waxed and waned during the centuries following the end of the classical period—perhaps as Latin degraded during the Middle Ages only to revive in the Renaissance. Ultimately, though, the burning of codices, introduction of new diseases, and the disruption of scribal schools by the Spanish spelled the end for Maya. A handful of glyphs were used into the 19th century, probably because users kept these remaining shards of knowledge secret and thus safe from Spanish depredations. But the already-weakened Mayan script, tightly linked to Mayan culture, could not survive in any meaningful way.

    The tale of invaders finishing off a writing system is not always so simple, however. Even scripts that appear to vanish suddenly can have an extended afterlife. On Crete, for example, the writing form known as Linear A emerged around 1800 B.C.E.—the first known writing system in Europe—only to vanish abruptly around 1450 B.C.E. Scholars disagree on virtually every aspect of Linear A—from its emergence to its disappearance to what the repertoire of 100 symbols means. It was long thought that invading Myceneans from the Greek mainland had crushed the existing Cretan culture and replaced the script with what is called Linear B, which records ancient Greek. But rather than being imposed by invaders, University of Sheffield archaeologist John Bennet suspects that the script was simply retooled by Cretans who came to favor the new language. “Linear B is essentially Linear A with new characters to record Greek rather than the Linear A language,” Bennet explains. Thus the story of Linear A is not one of extinction but transformation, he says.

    Same culture, new script?

    Even scripts that suffer what appears to be a true extinction don't necessarily signal a dramatic change in local culture. Nearly 2 millennia and half a world away from ancient Crete, another script came to an abrupt end. Called Kharosthi, this system emerged just before the common era began and the Kushan Empire came into prominence. The script grew at a natural meeting place of east and west, the high mountains and deep valleys of today's Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Persian influence traditionally met Indian. It was influenced by the Gandharan language, which was based on India's Sanskrit and on Aramaic, brought from the west by the Achaemenid Empire of Persia.

    Kharosthi appears in the mid-3rd century B.C.E., just as the Kushans began to create a vast but little-known empire that flourished at the same time as Europe's Roman, China's Han, and Persia's Parthian empires. Until the 3rd century C.E., the Kushans controlled critical caravan routes along the Silk Road, minted gold coins, and revitalized and spread Buddhism to China. Then the empire disintegrated into a set of small and fragmented kingdoms. Nearly simultaneously, Kharosthi rapidly disappears from the region. (As with many scripts, however, it hung on for a century or so in some remote areas such as in western China.)


    Made of tree bark and lime paste, the 74-page Dresden Codex was written in the 13th century by Mayan scribes, saved from Spanish bonfires, and shipped to Europe.


    Yet this wasn't a case of tandem decline in culture and script, because despite the political fragmentation of the kingdom, “there wasn't a traumatic cultural break,” says epigrapher Richard Salomon of the University of Washington, Seattle. “There is a gap before we have records again, and this probably was a time of chaos,” he says. But written records emerge again within 2 centuries—and “when they reappear the materials are similar.” In this case, a new script, Brahimi, arrived from India, but its content—mostly Buddhist texts—was strikingly similar to that of the old Kharosthi writings, he says.

    Salomon theorizes that India's long emphasis on oral rather than written tradition may have influenced the surprisingly easy shift to a new writing system. India “had a relatively casual attitude toward scripts,” Salomon says. That is in dramatic contrast to China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, where writing was itself deemed sacred. The death of Kharosthi, therefore, may not have signaled the end of a culture as it did in other times and places. “This script was not an emblem of culture,” says Salomon.

    No unified theory

    The scholars at the Oxford meeting stopped well short of proposing any grand theory to account for the death of scripts. The meeting did expose the profound difference between New World script experts and their Old World counterparts. Whereas the former tend to be anthropologists trained in comparative studies, the latter tend to be more narrowly focused archaeologists and philologists. “Anthropologists are looking more for commonalities, but we're not trained to do that,” says Cooper. He argues that New World specialists like Houston go too far in trying to account for the similarities in script death, such as those between Maya and cuneiform. “I don't feel there is any one single major breakthrough or theory,” to explain script disappearance, adds Salomon.

    Houston acknowledges that no theory can embrace script diversity, but he suggests that scholars focus on the communities of individuals who keep particular forms of writing alive for their own peculiar reasons. The next step, says Houston, is to go from why scripts die to understanding the local processes at work in their decline: “Why do people not choose to teach the next generation? What motivates these decisions?” He believes that threatened scripts seek out “ecological niches” to survive change, but thereby make themselves more vulnerable to obsolescence. Cuneiform and hieroglyphics scribes, for example, retreated to the safety of the temples, but in so doing cut themselves off from the emerging political and social changes.

    Both sides agree, however, that the sheer tenacity of many scripts has much to say about cultural survival and destruction. “The question,” says Houston, “is not how rapidly scripts die, but why they didn't die sooner.” The appearance of the innovative and flexible alphabet in Mesopotamia, for example, did not lead people to abandon cumbersome cuneiform. The two coexisted for centuries. “That tenacity shows that if you lose the script, it is often the last marker of a civilization; it seems to survive longer than any other aspect,” says Oxford's Baines. Such an indicator, he says, can provide scholars with a concrete set of data in theorizing on the decline and fall of civilizations. On that point, scholars are speaking the same language.

    • * Disappearance of Writing Systems, Keble College, Oxford, 26–28 March 2004.


    No Pen or Ink Needed

    1. Andrew Lawler

    For most of us, the term “writing” conjures up images of paper and pen. But recording systems through time have developed in a surprising variety of forms, many of which have been ignored, dismissed, or suppressed. Now, as researchers begin to consider how writing systems die (see main text), they also are examining lesser known systems to understand how societies long considered illiterate transmit knowledge.

    In the Andes, for example, Incans manipulated knotted strings long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Whether this system could record narrative or was simply an accounting device remains fiercely contested, because the precise meanings of the complex strings have yet to be unraveled (Science, 13 June 2003, p. 1650). Yet despite attempts by Spanish authorities to destroy the tradition, it proved surprisingly resilient. Ecuadorian factory workers still employed khipu in 1653 for labor and accounting purposes, and it is used in remote villages for similar purposes even today. “This is not simply a story of attrition,” says Frank Salomon, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has spent years traveling Andean villages to understand khipu. “This is not a dying tradition.”

    One key factor may be the common use of khipu. Mesopotamia's cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Mayan writing, for example, were the province of a privileged and mostly male elite; at most, only 1% of ancient Egyptians could write, according to Oxford University's John Baines. When the palace or temple cultures supporting those elites vanished, the scripts eventually died out. But when Incan elites were wiped out by disease and war after the Spanish arrival, khipu use continued quietly, even secretly, among peasants, including large numbers of women who may have been using khipu along with the elite. That fact kept khipu under the radar of authorities. “The survival of khipu has a lot to do with confidentiality,” says Salomon.

    Knotty problem.

    Scholars still disagree on the meaning of khipu, which was developed as a recording system in the Incan empire.


    Whereas the Inca culture, rich in textiles, developed knotted strings, other agricultural peoples turned to landscape itself as a kind of writing tablet. The Huli people of the central New Guinea highlands, for example, live in a marshy area that they have scored with irrigation ditches named for their ancestors. Although not traditional writing, this method does record history.

    “These ditches are genealogical maps,” explains Oxford anthropologist Christopher Gosden, who has studied the Huli. A canal recalling an esteemed clan leader, for example, may be the central artery in that clan's waterway, with newer ditches representing his successors clustered around it. Many ancient scripts emphasize recording genealogy: the early books of the Bible, for example, or the Sumerian king lists. The Huli's past may extend that far or even further. Gosden says archaeological evidence in the form of traces of ancient canals and stone implements shows at least 6000 years of human habitation and agriculture in this swampy area. “The very nature of the Huli depends on the preservation of their cultivation system,” says Gosden. Any threat to the Huli's livelihood—such as today's increasing pressure on the land from a growing population—also threatens their record of the past. There could be no better example of the way in which a writing system is deeply rooted—in this case, quite literally—within culture.


    Berlin's Scientific Treasure House Shakes Off the Dust

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    After decades in suspended animation, the Museum für Naturkunde has adopted 21st century methods in a campaign to recapture its former glory

    BERLIN—The specimen resembles a worn-out feather duster more than a bird. A gray tuft of feathers propped on one leg, it is missing a head, one wing, and a tail—wounds sustained during an Allied bombing attack during World War II. But for ornithologists, this denizen of Berlin's Natural History Museum is irreplaceable. Collected and described by Peter Simon Pallas in 1773, it is the type specimen of the long-tailed rosefinch Uragus sibiricus. “You wouldn't discard it even if it were a hunk of feathers,” says Mary LeCroy, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City.

    The finch belongs to one of the oldest and largest natural history collections in the world. It is also one of the most neglected. Located just 300 meters east of where the Berlin Wall once stood, the 25-million-piece collection spent 50 years largely cut off from the scientific community in the West and suffered decades of neglect under East German governments. And its problems didn't disappear with reunification. As part of Berlin's Humboldt University, the museum has endured flat or shrinking budgets as the bankrupt city struggles to fund three universities. Constant squabbling by department heads with little museum management experience hasn't helped.

    “It is a disastrous situation,” says Gerhard Neuweiler, chair of an expert committee that assessed the state of the museum in 2002. “The most important collections in Germany are … looked after by people who are more interested in their own disputes than in the collections.” The museum holds several scientific jewels, including one of the world's finest Archaeopteryx fossils. Its bird collection, says LeCroy, “is one of the most important in the world.” But the decay has made it difficult for researchers to take advantage of that wealth, says Robert Prys-Jones of the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, part of London's Natural History Museum. And many of the exhibits, lacking money and leadership, are a “museum of a museum,” says Matthias Glaubrecht, curator of the museum's mollusk collection.


    Berlin museum's collections have survived wars and decades of neglect.


    The dust is starting to swirl, however. A new public fundraising campaign features Berlin's mayor, a local television personality, and a popular cabaret singer. After bureaucratic and legal delays, university officials are taking up the expert committee's recommendations. And next year the museum will receive $23 million from the European Union and other donors to begin renovating four exhibit halls. The museum's supporters hope the moves will enable it to create a modern center for research on biodiversity and evolution as well as a public showpiece that can teach lessons about rapidly dwindling biodiversity and the consequences of that loss. “They have an absolutely unique resource that, unless it's cared for, will be lost for future generations,” says behavioral ecologist Timothy Birkhead of the University of Sheffield, U.K.

    A golden age, now tarnished

    Founded in 1810 as an expansion of Kaiser Wilhelm II's Wunderkammer, or “curiosity cabinet,” to display the most astounding spoils collected by German explorers, the Museum für Naturkunde quickly became one of the largest collections in the world. Prussian kings vying to rival London and Paris lavished funds on the museum, and German explorers brought back countless samples from around the globe. The bird collection, for example, boasts 135,000 skins collected by some of the world's most celebrated explorers, including Pallas, a German zoologist who led 18th century expeditions for Russian Czarina Catherine the Great, and James Cook just days before he was killed in Hawaii. German-born biologist Ernst Mayr, who celebrates his 100th birthday this month, began his career here (see p. 37) in 1923 as a summer assistant to ornithologist Erwin Stresemann. The museum houses many of the more than 3000 bird specimens and hundreds of mammals, insects, and plants that Mayr later collected in the South Pacific. Other treasures include the second of only seven known Archaeopteryx fossils, acquired in 1876, and the world's tallest mounted dinosaur skeleton, a 12-meter Brachiosaurus brancai mounted in 1937.

    The rich collections largely survived World War II as curators stowed specimens in bank vaults, village schools, and even farm cellars. The shell that damaged the rosefinch specimen failed to explode when it crashed through the roof, sparing much of the collection that remained in the museum. But a second bomb exploded in the east wing, destroying the marine mammal hall.

    After the war, curators and researchers painstakingly gathered the dispersed fossils, birds, skeletons, and libraries. But the museum was largely ignored in the rebuilding of what became East Berlin. Stuck with minimal budgets and often cut off from the rest of the scientific world, the museum had many collections that remained untouched for decades.

    Today the east wing remains a ruin, with trees sprouting from the third story and window frames leering from the blackened brick walls. The roof on the main wing remains the “temporary” one installed shortly after the war. The façade, like many in the eastern part of the city, is still pockmarked by bullet and shell holes from the street-by-street battle for Berlin.

    From the ruins?

    Destroyed in World War II, the east wing is in line for restoration.


    In the ornithology collection, many of the mounted specimens haven't been touched since curators hastily stowed them after the shell crashed through. To try to restore order, Frank Steinheimer, a researcher in the museum's bird collection, recruited ornithologist friends to help organize specimens in late-night taxonomy parties. The room itself lacks electricity except for a floodlight at each end. Layers of dust from the coal that heated East Berlin cover the walls. Decades of slow leaks have stained the ceilings, and outdated plumbing threatens to cause additional damage. On a visit a few years ago, Birkhead says, “I was appalled at the conditions there and the lack of concern the authorities were showing.”

    The collections retain an enormous scientific value, Glaubrecht says, both as snapshots of past ecosystems and as physical evidence of vanished species. “With DNA analysis and other techniques, these old collections become ever more important,” says René Dekker of the National Museum of Natural History Leiden in the Netherlands. “Every day, birds and mammals become extinct. Because we still have them in our collections, we still have the raw material to draw new knowledge from.”

    To demonstrate, Steinheimer opens a drawer containing a dozen small birds, all a striking shade of crimson. Hawaiian kings, he notes, used the feathers to line their royal cloaks. Now the Hawaiian honeycreepers—the drawer contains several species—are all extinct, killed off by avian malaria and mammals introduced to the islands in the 19th century. “It's good to have that tray,” says LeCroy of AMNH. “We wouldn't have known they ever lived if someone hadn't collected them. We always would have wondered where those brilliant red-feathered capes came from.” Last year, x-rays of the specimens enabled the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., to identify mislabeled skeletons in its collection.

    Back to life?

    The museum's treasures are finally catching the attention of outsiders as well. The latest effort began in 1999, after Anne-Barbara Ischinger, Humboldt University's newly installed vice president for external affairs, realized that the museum offered a major opportunity for public outreach. An expert committee assembled to give advice recommended a drastic overhaul.

    Since 1810 the museum had been divided into independent institutes of paleontology, mineralogy, and zoology, each headed by a university professor. The panel recommended that a single general director supervise departments of administration, public exhibits, scientific research, and collections. “We desperately needed someone who would take more responsibility,” says Ischinger. “The professors had their scientific focus but not the training or expertise to run a modern museum.”

    Late last year, after some delay, the Berlin government unanimously passed a “museum law” that enabled the university to proceed with the reorganization. Ischinger says the university expects to appoint a general director by the end of the summer. The steps are promising, says Neuweiler, “but each year that passes without the real organizational changes is another year that will really pull the museum down.” There is little time to waste, he says, in updating the decrepit collection halls and preserving increasingly fragile specimens.

    By year's end the museum hopes to hear about its application to the German Leibniz Society, an organization of independent, publicly funded scientific institutes. The move—also recommended by the expert commission—would, among other things, ensure more consistent funding directly from the Berlin and federal governments instead of from the cash-strapped Humboldt University.

    Ischinger is also encouraged by the support from politicians. When Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit accepted Ischinger's invitation to visit, “he was quite taken,” she says. “He realized we had a sleeping beauty that had to be woken up.” Although Berlin's bankrupt government is unlikely to shower new funds on the museum, Wowereit's support has raised the institute's profile. Pictures of him with a stuffed wombat, for which he is a “sponsor,” currently blanket the city. Cabaret singer Max Raabe has adopted Bobby, a famous gorilla from the Berlin Zoo who was added to the great ape display after his death in the 1930s. Television personality Anne Will has sponsored a Dicraeosaurus fossil. Entrepreneur Hans Wall donated $95,000 to sponsor Archaeopteryx.

    Such a fundraising campaign is unusual in Germany, where generous government subsidies have supported most cultural institutions. Responding to advertisements that cover the city's bus and tram terminals, nearly 1500 people have agreed to sponsor specimens, donating more than $275,000 to the museum. In 5 years, Ischinger predicts, the museum will have two modern exhibition halls and a third more space for the scientific collections. In 10 years, she hopes, the east wing may even be rebuilt. “I see it as a glass laboratory for the public, where practical research is being demonstrated to an audience, as well as hosting lectures and libraries,” she says.

    Steinheimer offers a similar vision for the museum's bird collection: sorting and cataloging it to make it accessible to researchers, renovating the collection halls, and arranging guided tours so visitors can see the behind-the-scenes work of the curators and researchers. Without such public interactions, says Steinheimer, “it's just a dead collection of stuffed birds.” Indeed, he adds, “much of the museum has essentially been dead since World War II.” For the first time in decades, he says, it is slowly returning to life.


    Museums That Made a Master

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Great scientists need more than genius, says Ernst Mayr. They also need to be in the right place at the right time. “My life was very much influenced by luck, again and again.”

    If so, it's been quite a run. The eminent ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, who is on the eve of his 100th birthday, has written more than a dozen books; described scores of new species; published 700 scientific articles; and won recognition for revolutionizing evolutionary thinking. But a glance at Mayr's 80 years in science shows that his “luck” is actually a talent for making flawless career moves—and for affiliating himself with institutions that both shaped and were shaped by him.

    Mayr entered scientific research in 1923. As a young medical student, he took a summer job with Erwin Stresemann at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, Germany, helping to classify new specimens brought back from the tropics (see main text). The experience led him to switch careers and pursue a Ph.D. In 1926, Stresemann helped arrange for Mayr to conduct fieldwork in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Many of the thousands of specimens Mayr and others brought back from the Pacific are mainstays of the museum's collections.

    After launching his career as an ornithologist, Mayr moved in 1932 to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York—“because they offered me a job” at a time when positions were scarce, he says. He immediately was tapped to catalog 280,000 birds, most from the Pacific, that the museum had acquired from a private collection.

    Over the next 2 decades Mayr came into his own as an evolutionary biologist. In 1942 he published a groundbreaking book, Systematics and the Origin of Species. AMNH was “a beautiful place for him to be inspired,” says Niles Eldridge, an invertebrate paleontologist at the museum. Mayr used the many specimens there to perceive patterns of diversity across the different islands, which were separated by varying distances and offered unique habitats. The book drove home the idea that reproductive isolation could lead to new species. “His articulation of speciation still influences the way people do things,” notes AMNH ornithologist Joel Cracraft.

    Mayr also benefited from the innovative thinking of museum colleagues and academics at Columbia University. One of the most influential was Columbia University geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. With a handful of other daring thinkers, Mayr and Dobzhansky pushed forward a new view of evolution, the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, that melded genetics and evolutionary biology. Those disciplines remain intimately entwined today.

    High flyer.

    Ernst Mayr in 1962, holding a small seabird called a dovekie.


    The collections earned fame for both AMNH and Mayr. Thanks to Mayr's work with the Pacific Island specimens, the museum's ornithological collections surpassed those of its traditional rival, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). As he worked through the specimens, Mayr found 26 new species and 445 new subspecies of birds, publishing descriptions of them all.

    Mayr also reached out beyond the museum's walls to colleagues across the country and to the public. In the 1940s, he was instrumental in putting together a hall devoted to birds—“one of the first—if not the first—exhibition halls in a major museum presenting the manifold aspects in the life of a group of organisms,” Columbia University's Walter Bock, a former student of Mayr, writes in the July issue of Auk. Mayr also helped found the Society for the Study of Evolution, as well as the journal Evolution, as a forum for like-minded biologists.

    At age 49, Mayr pulled up stakes again, moving to Harvard. “They offered me a job,” he repeats. Actually, Bock says, Mayr was feeling restless and longed for academic opportunities that the museum could not offer. “I had graduate students the minute I got to Harvard,” says Mayr, who became an MCZ Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in 1953. Over the next 22 years, he worked hard to bring Harvard and MCZ closer together, enhancing the academic atmosphere of the museum.

    His own career took a new turn as well. Mayr developed a taste for the history and philosophy of science, topics he dealt with in many of his subsequent books. “If I had not come here, I don't know if I would have the courage to tackle these subjects,” he adds.

    In 1961, Mayr became the director of MCZ and set out to bring it on a par with its U.S. counterparts. While there, he pushed through the construction of a large research wing, which was completed in 1971. He also established the Concord Field Station, a 1600-hectare tract of undeveloped land where curators and Harvard students could observe species in their natural environments—something researchers at other museums were already doing, he points out.

    After retiring as director in 1970 and as an MCZ professor 5 years later, Mayr became a prolific writer. In 1982, he published The Growth of Biological Thought, which covered the history, problems, and concepts of biology. Several of his other books also delve into ideas more than data—and, says current MCZ director James Hanken, all have been handwritten.

    Meanwhile, Mayr's mounting honors have burnished the museum's image as well. Ten universities have awarded him honorary degrees. He has won 33 awards, including the National Medal of Science in 1969; the Balzan Prize—considered biology's answer to the Nobel Prize—in 1983; and the International Prize for Biology, or Japan Prize, in 1994. “All this indicates that the world of scholarship [has] appreciated what I was doing,” Mayr says. “I became a world leader in these fields, and that was good for Harvard.”