Random Samples

Science  30 Jul 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5684, pp. 603

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  1. Magnetic Art

    The mural painters of ancient Central American cultures most likely selected their red pigments for their brilliance and durability, not for their iron content or magnetic properties. Geophysicists, however, now say that magnetic particles of pigment can reveal small variations in Earth's magnetic field over time.

    Image painted with hematite.CREDIT: A. GOGICHAISHVILI AND G. CHIARI

    Geophysicist Avto Gogichaishvili of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and his co-authors analyzed 28 paint samples from murals at four temples painted between 200 and 1200 C.E. In last month's Geophysical Research Letters they report that hematite—the source of red color—and magnetite retained information about the precise direction of the Central American magnetic field at the time the paintings dried. “The technique may provide an inexpensive alternative to other methods of dating archaeological sites,” says Gogichaishvili. Scientists already date artifacts by the magnetic imprint left when objects are heated in kilns or fires, says paleomagnetist Andrew Biggin of the University of Montpellier in France: “But using paintings is a very innovative idea.”

  2. Bets Beat Polls

    A century ago, betting on the presidential election was a popular quadrennial pastime. Now, thanks to the Internet, so-called prediction markets are booming again—and getting the attention of economists.

    Two articles published this month in the Journal of Economic Perspectives suggest that betting markets can outforecast the polls. In one, Paul Rhode and Koleman Strumpf of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, relate that from 1884 to 1940, when election wagering was wildly popular, bettors correctly picked the winner in every year but 1916, when Woodrow Wilson beat Charles Evans Hughes with a last-minute upset in California. After 1940, because polls were perceived as more scientific, the gambling markets faded from public consciousness, says Strumpf.

    But the current betting markets—led by Web sites such as http://www.intrade.com/, tradesports.com, and fairbet.com—may outperform opinion polls, according to a paper by Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania and Eric Zitzewitz of Stanford University. In the last four presidential elections, the University of Iowa's Iowa Electronic Market has averaged an error margin of ±1.5% in the week before the vote, compared with ±2.1% for the Gallup polls. More recently, traders picked John Edwards as John Kerry's running mate 2 months before Kerry did.

    One reason markets are better at prediction, Strumpf says, is that polls are time-bound snapshots of the public's mood. Thus, for example, candidates always surge in popularity after a convention, but canny bettors know it won't last.

  3. Hearth of Desperation

    Archaeologists may have found an encampment of the ill-fated Donner Party, some members of which resorted to eating their dead after being stranded by snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada en route to California in October 1846.

    Piece of Donner dish.CREDIT: NMH

    Two years ago, Julie Schablitsky of the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History and Kelly Dixon of the University of Montana, Missoula, used ground-penetrating radar to zero in on buried artifacts at the rumored Donner family camp in Alder Creek meadow near Truckee, California, one of two camps the party made. This summer they hit pay dirt: “blackened, spotty, darkish soil” covering a 60-centimeter-wide hearth and thousands of small bone fragments that had been scraped and boiled clean. They also found mid-19th century artifacts such as ceramic shards, handmade bottles, lead shot, and pieces of what might have been the teacher's slate belonging to Tamzene Donner, the wife of the party's leader, George Donner.

    Although there are many descriptions of the tragedy, no archaeological evidence has been found until now. “A lot of people had rejected the idea that [Alder Creek] was the camp,” says archaeologist Donald Hardesty of the University of Nevada, Reno. “We would profit enormously to have physical remains.” Schablitsky says that DNA samples from the bones are being tested to see if they are animal or human.

  4. Bank for Endangered DNA

    This dove from Mexico's Socorro Island, now extinct in the wild, is to be among the first beneficiaries of a “Frozen Ark” established this week in Britain.


    Billed as “the world's first DNA and tissue bank dedicated to all the world's endangered animals,” it's a project of London's Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society of London, and the Institute of Genetics at the University of Nottingham. The ark will be both a real and a virtual resource, explains Philip Rainbow, keeper of zoology at the museum. Rainbow says the first job will be to list the contents of all animal DNA collections on the Internet. The ark will aim to fill in the gaps, he says. Ark headquarters will be at Nottingham, and specimens will be kept in zoo and museum freezers. There are no cloning plans, says Rainbow: “The important thing is to make the samples safe” and available for research.

  5. Politics


    Changing sides. Representative James Greenwood (R-PA), who has been overseeing probes of drug companies and consulting by federal scientists, is leaving Congress to head the country's largest biotechnology trade group. Greenwood, 53, announced last week that he would step down in January to become president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, D.C.

    A six-term member of the House, Greenwood chairs the oversight and investigations panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The panel has probed everything from Medicare to Enron and Imclone and is currently investigating the National Institutes of Health for conflicts of interest arising from NIH scientists consulting for industry. Last week, the panel cancelled a hearing on antidepressants for children, at which several companies that are BIO members were slated to testify.

    A proponent of human embryonic stem cell research, Greenwood declared in a BIO press statement: “I passionately believe in the promise of biotechnology to find cures and treatments.” He succeeds Carl Feldbaum, who is retiring after 11 years at the helm (Science, 13 February, p. 953). He will earn at least $800,000 per year, more than four times his government salary.

  6. In The Courts

    Posthumous victory. Japanese archaeologist Mitsuo Kagawa, who killed himself in 2001 after being accused of scientific fraud, reclaimed his honor on 15 July in court.

    Kagawa led an early 1960s investigation that concluded that the Hijiridaki Cave in western Japan was the only site in the country yielding both human bones and Paleolithic stone tools. A reexamination in 1999 concluded that stone tools dating to 20,000 years ago had been introduced to the site long after the 700-year-old human remains were buried there. Without naming Kagawa, the magazine Shukan Bunshun reported the case as another of a series of frauds plaguing Japanese archaeology. Kagawa then hanged himself, leaving a note protesting the allegations. His family sued the magazine's publisher, Bungei Shunju (Science, 23 November 2001, p. 1634).

    The supreme court agreed with a lower court that the magazine was careless in reporting and verifying its claims and ordered Bungei Shunju to pay Kagawa's family $90,000 and to print an apology. The publisher issued a statement agreeing to comply with the verdict but decrying its implications for freedom of expression.

  7. Jobs


    Space walk. The director of NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore will step down when his term expires next year after deciding that his strong advocacy for the Hubble Space Telescope might be damaging the institute's relations with its funder.

    Steve Beckwith, director since 1998, has won widespread respect from astronomers for both his scientific accomplishments and his management skills. But he clashed this year with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who canceled future missions to Hubble in February. “This advocacy has given me a high level of visibility that could jeopardize what I can achieve for the community,” says Beckwith.

    Beckwith says this month's National Research Council study, which backed a robotic or a human mission to service the orbiting facility, provided the right moment to announce his decision (Science, 23 July, p. 463).

  8. Deaths

    Fatal virus. Virginia Tech graduate student Jeff Kaminski loved fieldwork—“that's when he was in his element,” says population geneticist Eric Hallerman, one of his professors at the Blacksburg university. That passion cost the 32-year-old mammalogist his life.

    Kaminski became ill on 5 July and died 3 days later from hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a disease he presumably contracted while catching rodents in West Virginia for a study of how forest management strategies affect small mammals. His death comes on the heels of an HPS case involving a 23-year-old technician at the University of California (UC), Davis, who was likely infected while trapping rodents near a field station in Plumas County, California. The patient was hospitalized in late June but is now fine, a university spokesperson says.

    The cases underscore the importance of wearing rubber gloves, a special suit, and a respirator when catching rodents, says University of New Mexico hantavirus expert Brian Hjelle. Kaminski had been advised to wear gloves and a paper mask, Hallerman says, but it's unclear if he did so. The UC Davis technician did not use any protective gear.