Random Samples

Science  15 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5695, pp. 403
  1. 'Ring of Light' Appalls Astronomers

    Astronomers are raising a fuss about an event that they complain amounts to a celebration of light pollution. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis—when he published a series of groundbreaking papers while working as a patent clerk—physicists want to organize a ring of light circling the globe.

    The show, planned by physicist Max Lippitsch of the University of Graz in Austria, is to be part of the World Year of Physics 2005. On 18 April—the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death—Lippitsch hopes to get up to 100,000 people around the globe shining torches, lasers, and car headlamps into the sky.

    “This is educating people that shining lights into the sky at night is OK,” when it actually is making astronomy increasingly difficult, says physicist Darren Baskill of the University of Leicester, U.K. Britain's Institute of Physics considered taking part but declined in the face of irate responses from members.

    Lippitsch could not be reached for comment. But James Riordon, spokesperson for the American Physical Society, says that APS is considering support of the project even though members of their Astrophysics Division are “telling us they're horrified.” Says Riordon, “It's the only public outreach project that will reach a broad audience.”

  2. Chimp the Toolmaker

    Mother chimp has fishing probe in her mouth.CREDIT: GOUALOUGO CHIMPANZEE PROJECT

    Primate researchers in the Republic of the Congo have used hidden cameras to get a closer look than ever before at tool use by chimps, finding that they use different types of sticks depending on the termite colony they're trying to pillage.

    David Morgan of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Crickette Sanz, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, planted motion-sensing video cameras near termite mounds and filmed 121 individuals over 6 months when they visited six termite nests in a remote area of the Congo Basin called the Goualougo Triangle.

    In the November issue of the American Naturalist, the authors describe how chimps used either short or long “puncturing sticks” to break through to the nests and then stuck “fishing probes” into the hole for termites to crawl onto. The videos show the chimps nimbly switching back and forth between tools. They can also be seen placing a foot on the stick to push it into the ground like a shovel. And a female chimp can be seen pulling a stick through her teeth, says Sanz, intentionally shredding the end to make it like a brush, which picks up more termites.

    Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham says the study fills a gap, because “until now our view of chimpanzee termite fishing has been overly biased by data on the fringe populations in East Africa.” But there are differences—for example, East African chimps just use their hands to puncture termite nests.

  3. Huge Southern Ice Sheet

    The present-day Antarctic Peninsula is in light blue. During the Last Glacial Maximum, the ice extended to the red.CREDIT: DAVID HEROY

    The global rise in sea levels that accompanied the melting of glaciers may owe more to the Antarctic Peninsula than had been thought, according to scientists at Rice University in Houston, Texas. New data show that the peninsula's ice sheet extended about 220 kilometers beyond its current shoreline—more than twice as far out as earlier estimates—during the last Ice Age before it began retreating about 16,000 years ago.

    Marine geologist David Heroy determined the past extent of the ice sheet from the presence of glacial till— accumulations of silt and rock deposited by glaciers—in sediment samples and by seismic data from the sea floor. Using a technique called multibeam swath bathymetry, scientists could discern the telltale grooves and humps made by glaciers scouring the seabed. They also found ridges up to 70 kilometers long left by ice streams draining the ice sheet's interior.

    It's “hugely important” to get good estimates of how far ice sheets extended “to figure out how much seawater was tied up in Antarctica,” says glaciologist David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, U.K. Most estimates are “very shaky,” he adds. The new data, which Heroy presented at a workshop at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge last month, indicate that the North American ice sheets were not the only big players in determining global sea level during the last Ice Age.

  4. Expectant Fish

    This portrait of 25-day-old turbot larvae, by Tora Bardal of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is one of the winners of Nikon's International Small World Competition in photomicrography, announced on 6 October.

  5. Pioneers

    SOURCE: DIDIER BARRET

    Freeing the spirit. In his day job, astrophysicist Didier Barret studies black holes, from which even light cannot escape. In his spare time, he helps those who are physically confined because of reasons other than gravitational laws.

    Barret, a researcher at the Midi-Pyrénées Observatory in Toulouse, France, is the founder of The Stars Shine for All, which visits prisons, hospitals, and retirement homes to deliver lectures on science. The goal is to “help [shut-ins] think about other things than their solitude,” says Barret, who started the group in May. “They can escape for a while, thanks to science.”

    More than 30 scientists from the observatory and other institutions have volunteered for the outreach and have been richly rewarded. “They are apparently still talking about it,” marvels Barret about one audience of convicts, after a series of five lectures left them begging for more.

  6. Jobs

    • Particle physicist Rolf-Dieter Heuer has been named research director for high-energy physics at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany. Heuer, 56, succeeds Robert Klanner, who will return to teaching and research when his 5-year term ends in December.

    • The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, has snagged a top Swedish pharmacologist for its new campus in Palm Beach, Florida. Claes Wahlestedt, 45, is director of the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He will join Scripps in January as professor of biomedical sciences and director of pharmacogenomics.

  7. Deaths

    A true gentleman. Maurice Wilkins, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize with James Watson and Francis Crick for discovering the structure of DNA, died on 6 October in London. He was 88.

    Born in New Zealand, Wilkins moved to England as a child and became a physicist. He worked on the Manhattan Project before moving into biophysics. He and Rosalind Franklin took the first x-ray photographs of crystalline DNA, which provided the data from which Watson and Crick deduced its structure.

    After witnessing “the atrocities of war,” says Watson, Wilkins harbored “a very deep personal concern that science be used to benefit society” and campaigned for nuclear dis- armament. According to his colleagues at King's College, London, Wilkins was content to describe himself as “the third man of the double helix.”

    CREDIT: BETTMANN/CORBIS

    Explorer of the unknown. John Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist whose research into claims of alien abduction sparked controversy, was killed after being hit by a car in London on 27 September. He was 74.

    Mack won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for his biography of T. E. Lawrence. But he is best known for work that takes a sympathetic view of those describing encounters with aliens. “Having listened to the similar testimony of more than 200 experiences from the West and from indigenous cultures, I have come to feel that the phenomenon is of great importance to our evolution, regardless of its ontological status,” he said.

  8. Data Points

    Welcome slowdown. Grant-review staff at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had an easier time of it this year after the number of new applications rose by only 9%. That's down sharply from a staggering 27% jump in 2003, which forced staffers to forgo meetings and other outreach activities and strained the capacity of study sections, says Brent Stanfield, acting director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review.

    But the respite may be short-lived. A tighter NIH bud-get could mean a higher rate of rejections, leading to more resubmissions or more proposals per capita from scientists try-ing to beat the odds. “I hope not,” Stanfield says.