Random Samples

Science  09 Jul 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5681, pp. 174

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  1. Virtual Unwrapping


    The insides of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy are on display at the British Museum in London, thanks to swanky three-dimensional visualization techniques. The exhibit, which opened last week and runs through January, uses technology previously applied to oil exploration, medical scanning, and cadavers (Science, 26 February 1999, p. 1223).

    Physically unwrapping a mummy can be destructive. So the museum subjected Nesperennub, a priest who lived in Thebes in the 9th century B.C.E. and has resided at the British Museum since 1899, to computed axial tomography scans and 3D laser scans. Working with Silicon Graphics Inc., curators assembled 1500 images into a lifelike, 3D creation. Observers can spin the image around and examine the mummy's outer casing, the inner flesh, and the skeleton. The virtual unwrapping revealed some intriguing details, like a tiny hole on the inside of Nesperennub's skull that may be the result of a brain tumor or tuberculosis.

  2. Darling, Not Another Duckbill

    No bids for this Conchoraptor.


    How many living rooms can hold a giant duckbill dinosaur? Not many, judging from paltry bidding for the skeleton at an auction of fossils last month in New York. That desultory response is just fine with paleontologists, who would prefer to see the fossils wind up in academic settings.

    Dozens of potential bidders shied away from the starting price of $300,000, and the dinosaur was just one of many high-priced items passed over at the 24 June auction run by Guernsey's. Jaws from an ancient shark, a megalodon, didn't spark interest at $400,000, nor did a Conchoraptor skeleton from China, starting at $25,000. That was a far cry from the scene 7 years ago, when Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex was auctioned off for $7.6 million (Science, 10 October 1997, p. 218). (The Field Museum of Chicago bought it with help from McDonald's Corp.)

    “The dinosaur craze has waned,” says Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland, who attended the auction and called some starting prices “astronomical” and “well beyond the grasp” of museums and universities. Some fossils, though, did fly off the auction block, including a pterodactyl that sold for $35,000 and a 19th century humpback whale skeleton that went for $160,000.

  3. Hot, Naked Star

    Like a celestial exhibitionist, a star in the constellation Draco the Dragon has thrown off its mantle to expose its bare core, and it has taken astronomers aback. The surface of the star, H1504+65, is a sizzling 200,000 kelvin, making it the hottest white dwarf star ever recorded, recent NASA satellite data reveal. What's more, the stellar core is almost entirely carbon and oxygen, with no trace of hydrogen and helium—the main constituents of stars. H1504+65 is the first star identified that lacks helium altogether.

    White dwarfs are the slowly cooling cores of sunlike stars in which nuclear fusion has stopped. Given its high temperature, H1504+65 must have shut down its fusion reactions very recently—maybe just a couple of centuries ago, according to Klaus Werner of the University of Tübingen in Germany. Werner led the team that studied the star with the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

    But the team, which describes its findings in the July issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics, can't explain all the star's oddities, especially its absence of helium. Maybe the star's helium atmosphere has been blown away by a sudden thermonuclear ignition of carbon, says Werner. If so, future observations should reveal the telltale presence of sodium, one of the products of this reaction.

  4. License to Leech

    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the sale of leeches as a medical device. The French company that received FDA's thumbs up, Ricarimpex SAS, has been breeding leeches for 150 years. Although this is the first time FDA has explicitly granted permission for a company to sell them, there are plenty of homegrown leech vendors; several were grandfathered in under a 1976 law requiring the licensing of medical-device sellers.

    Medical leeches, Hirudo medicinalis, are already used in plastic surgery to remove pooled blood from damaged areas, says Carl Krasniak of the Slocum-Dickson Medical Group in New Hartford, New York. The animals use a combination of chemicals in their saliva to prevent clotting and suck blood. FDA deemed them “devices” because their sucking action is considered more medically important than their anticlotting saliva.

  5. Politics

    Moral fiber. A controversial Kentucky physician has received at least a year extension to his term on a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel.

    W. David Hager, an obstetrician-gynecologist, says his conservative religious views have not influenced his judgments on the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, to which he was appointed in 2002. He was in the minority last December when the panel voted 23 to 4 to make levonorgestrel, the so-called Plan B emergency contraceptive, available over the counter, a decision FDA later overruled.

    “Regardless of how you feel about my positions, I feel that I am able to objectively evaluate the data,” says Hager. A campaign to block his reappointment, which was first reported on 29 June, generated more than 25,000 protest letters from abortion-rights supporters.

  6. Checking In


    Reinvention. The British energy giant BP has spent the last several years recasting itself as an energy company with an eye toward the future by pushing renewable energy and hydrogen technologies. That push has grown stronger since Steven Koonin was tapped in March to be the company's chief scientist. Koonin, a theoretical physicist now on leave from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), resigned as the university's provost earlier this year.

    Koonin says he's pushing BP on a broad array of issues, including novel energy technologies, carbon sequestration, and the environment. “BP, and the world, need carefully thought-out, technically informed strategies to manage the looming issues of availability and continuity of energy supply, as well as environmental impacts,” Koonin says.

    “BP is not a company that can turn on a dime,” because energy companies are inherently conservative, says Tom Tombrello, a Caltech colleague of Koonin, who has also served a stint in industry as research director at the oil services firm Schlumberger. So Tombrello says he was “a little surprised” that BP tapped an outsider for the job. But Koonin's breadth of interests, he adds, makes him a good fit. Says Tombrello of both BP and Koonin: “They are changing their spots.”

  7. Jobs

    Early exit. Bjørn Lomborg, the controversial statistician who believes the fears of environmentalists are overblown, is stepping down after 2 years as director of Denmark's Environmental Assessment Institute and returning to the University of Aarhus. “I've always said I wouldn't stay here for all 5 years [of his contract],” he told the Danish press.

    Lomborg will remain as a part-time consultant to the institute, working to disseminate an economists' report that describes efforts to stem global warming as a bad investment of resources (Science, 4 June, p. 1429). “This is surely not the last we'll hear from him,” predicts Hans Pedersen, editor of the journal of the Danish Organization for Renewable Energy.


    New EMBL head. Scottish cell biologist Iain Mattaj has been named director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. Mattaj is now scientific director of the lab, which is supported by 17 European countries and has research facilities at five sites. He will succeed Fotis Kafatos, who steps down in May.

    Mattaj says he hopes to integrate basic research into a broader program of systems biology and to “incorporate computational methods into as many of our activities as possible.” Kai Simons, a former EMBL colleague and now director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, says Mattaj is certainly up to the task of identifying the next generation of technologies. “He's been a great resource for EMBL and is well-versed in everything there,” Simons says.

  8. Sidelines


    Medical warriors. While undergoing treatment for leukemia, 9-year-old Ben Duskin of Greenbrae, California, wished he and other patients could wage a more active fight against their illness. So after he went into remission last year, Duskin teamed up with software engineer Eric Johnston to design a free video game that lets players battle cancer by destroying mutated cells while warding off the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy.

    Ben's game (www.makewish.org/ben) has been downloaded more than 40,000 times since its first version was released in May. And last week, it was installed on computers at the pediatric center of the University of California, San Francisco, where Ben received his treatment. For young cancer patients, says Johnston, a programmer with entertainment software developer LucasArts who volunteered his time for the project, “playing the game can provide some degree of emotional comfort.”