Random Samples

Science  27 Aug 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5688, pp. 1236
  1. Handwriting Analysis Goes 3D

    Ballpoint pen marks on paper (top) and reversed image (bottom) showing bump where lines cross. CREDIT: SPAGNOLO ET AL.

    A new technique that uses three- dimensional holograms to analyze handwriting samples may expose writing characteristics that forgers can't fake.

    Traditionally, forensic handwriting experts try to spot forgeries by analyzing the pen strokes used to create a signature. But it's difficult to discern these “stroke dynamics,” especially in the work of a skilled forger.

    So scientists at the Università degli Studi “Roma Tre” in Rome are using a hologram generator to make 3D reconstructions, transforming handwriting into landscapes of hills and trenches that reveal the pressure and stroke sequence used to create each letter. For example, when strokes made with a ballpoint pen cross each other, the second stroke clearly cuts across the first if it's made with equal pressure. These are details that “you wouldn't be able to see on a microscope,” says co-author Lorenzo Cozzella, an electrical engineer. Tests of various combinations of pen and paper types in 126 different signatures revealed that the holographic image indicated the proper stroke order in almost 90% of cases, the authors report in the 10 August Journal of Optics A.

    Charles Berger, a document examiner at the Netherlands Forensic Institute in The Hague, is skeptical of the researchers' claims, which, he says, “will have to be supported by experiments in which factors such as the writing pressure and paper support are controlled.” But “if it really works, it would be a valuable tool for forensics,” says Venu Govindaraju, a pattern recognition expert at the University at Buffalo in New York, who notes that the problem of forgeries is “rampant.”

  2. Obesity Watch

    The United States' “epidemic” of obesity and couch-potatohood continues unabated, according to two recent reports.

    A federal interagency report on America's Children released last month relates that 15% of children between 6 and 18 were overweight as of 2000. Mexican-American boys now lead the pack: 30% of Chicano adolescents were overweight by 2000. Next highest risk are black girls, 24% of whom are overweight.

    Prospects for a slimmer future are not great, judging by another study, published last month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. A team of scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, headed by Antoinette K. Yancey, found from a telephone survey of 8353 L.A. adults that 41% acknowledged “sedentary” existences. Sedentary was defined as “no continuous physical activity for at least 10 minutes weekly at any level.”

    Time for state intervention? “The U.S. epidemic of obesity and sedentariness is now of sufficient societal magnitude and cost that increasing physical activity participation can no longer be treated as solely an individual responsibility,” the authors intone.

  3. Rare Albino Elephant


    Wildlife biologists in Sri Lanka last month took unprecedented photos of a white elephant (center) in the wild. A female about 11 years old, she was spotted in a herd of about 17 elephants. Dayananda Kariyawasam, director of Sri Lanka's Department of Wildlife Conservation, said scientists intend to collect dung samples to see if they can determine the genetic mutation for albinism, which is extremely rare in elephants.

  4. Two Different Worlds


    The demographic divide that cleaves the world, largely along north-south lines, is getting ever more pronounced, the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), based in Washington, D.C., noted last week in its annual data report. Although population in the developed world has pretty much leveled off—and is actually declining in countries other than the United States—the rest of the world continues its precipitous climb despite high infant mortality in some areas, such as Africa.

    The PRB exemplified the trends in a comparison of Nigeria and Japan, countries of similar population size but with very different population trajectories.

  5. Campaigns

    Mobilizing millions. Lee Iacocca, the former auto executive who created the Ford Mustang, is asking 1 million Americans to donate $10 each to fund a clinical trial of a novel diabetes treatment. Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have struck out finding money from conventional sources.

    Mass General immuno- biologist Denise Faustman reported in Science last year (14 November 2003, p. 1223) that injecting adult spleen cells into diabetic mice allowed their pancreases to regenerate, offering a potential treatment for type I diabetes. The Food and Drug Administration gave Mass General the go-ahead to try to replicate the approach in humans using an already-approved drug, but funding sources such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation were unconvinced that it was a bigger priority than other experimental treatments.

    That's when Iacocca, whose wife Mary died of type I diabetes more than 20 years ago, stepped in. He says he wrote a personal check to Faustman for $1 million before asking the public to help. “We have not had any success getting support from other groups,” says Iacocca, and “I decided I didn't want to wait.” He hopes to raise enough money by the end of the year.

  6. In Memoriam

    Canadian tragedy. The University of Toronto is setting up a scholarship to honor an engineering student killed while driving a solar-powered car he helped build for a school project.

    Andrew Frow, 21, died 12 August while participating in the inaugural 10,000-kilometer Canadian Solar Tour across Ontario and Quebec. Frow lost control of Faust II and veered into the path of an oncoming minivan shortly after the six-car convoy started out from Windsor, Ontario. Police speculate that gusting winds may have caused the 190-kg car to fishtail out of its lane. Officials immediately canceled the tour.

    Frow's family says Andrew “was passionate about the project,” and they hope solar-car enthusiasts will continue developing the technology.

  7. On Campus

    Alleged skullduggery. A German anthropologist who's been accused by his university of peddling chimpanzee skulls that don't belong to him is now facing questions about his research, too.

    Reiner Protsch von Zieten, the former director of the Institute of Anthropology and Human Genetics for Biology at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, was put on leave by the university in April after officials said he had tried to sell 280 chimpanzee skulls for $70,000. The university says the skulls belong to its collection; Protsch has told reporters that he bought them from a Heidelberg doctor nearly 30 years ago.

    Last week, the weekly magazine Der Spiegel added to Protsch's woes with a report that several fossils originally dated by Protsch have been found to be several thousand years younger than he had claimed. According to the magazine, the fossils were reexamined as part of a larger study of Paleolithic fossils by archaeologists Thomas Terberger of the University of Greifswald and Martin Street of the Research Center for the Early Stone Age in Neuwied. Protsch told Der Spiegel that the new measurements are wrong.

    Although the misconduct accusations are serious, says anthropologist Carsten Niemitz of the Free University in Berlin, the impact on the field is “marginal” because of ongoing work that will answer questions about who was living in Germany 30,000 years ago.

  8. Politics


    Tit for tat. Michael Reagan, son of the former president and his first wife Jane Wyman, will defend President George W. Bush's stem cell research policies at the Republican national convention next week in New York City.

    Brother Ron, a Democrat, made a plea for expanded stem cell research at the Democratic convention last month (Science, 23 July, p. 473). News reports indicate that the Republicans lined up 59-year-old Michael after it became clear that Nancy Reagan would not be attending the convention.

    Michael, who lives in Los Angeles, is host of a conservative talk show that airs on the Internet and on satellite radio. On a recent broadcast, he observed that not all the Reagans endorse human embryonic stem cell research, saying, “my father, as I do, opposed the creation of human embryos for the sole purpose of using their stem cells as possible medical cures.”

  9. Deaths

    Nobelist. Sune Bergstrom, the biochemist who shared the 1982 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on prostaglandins, died in his native Sweden on 15 August. He was 88.

    Cloning researcher. John Clark, the head of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, U.K., was found dead in his vacation home along the Berwickshire coast in Scotland on 12 August. The 53-year-old Clark played a role in the creation of Dolly and became Roslin's director in 2002.

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