Random Samples

Science  22 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5696, pp. 605
  1. Britain Over 3 Billion Years

    CREDIT: BBC

    Hippos in Trafalgar fountain remind viewers that hippo teeth were found in London.

    From hippos in London's Trafalgar Square to snails that were introduced as a delicacy by the Romans, a new television series traces the 3-billion-year evolution of the British Isles and encourages viewers to help bring the story up to date.

    British Isles: A Natural History, an eight-part series that started on 29 September, begins with the islands' separation from supercontinent Rodinia, passing through the alternating periods of ice sheets and tropical savanna—when mammoths were replaced by hippos—to changes wrought by humans and other invasive species, such as rhododendrons and rabbits. Scientists from Britain's Open University also teamed up with regional BBC producers for short segments on local wonders such as the Isle of Wight's mammoth traps.

    An accompanying Web site (www.open2.net/naturalhistory) offers a host of educational material and “Walks Through Time” for locales around Britain. And the Great British Snail Hunt invites people to scan their own backyards and relay data that could address questions such as whether snail distributions have been altered due to climate change and why the banding patterns of the brown-lipped snail are so variable. That's been puzzling scientists since the 1850s, says survey designer Mike Dodd, an ecologist at the Open University.

  2. Clam Diet

    CREDIT: DEVIN BUICK

    Clam shell cross section.

    A long-lived clam that inhabited the waters of Antarctica 45 million years ago may provide further evidence for the virtues of a calorie-restricted diet.

    Some species of clam living at great depths or high latitudes live longer than humans. Researchers have speculated that the frigid temperatures at these extremes contribute to longevity by reducing metabolic rates. But they didn't reckon with the Eocene clam Cucullaea raea, according to paleontologist Linda Ivany of Syracuse University in New York and her student Devin Buick. The scientists recently estimated, from counting the growth bands in shell cross sections from the fist-sized bivalves, that they lived up to 120 years.

    In Eocene days, Antarctic waters weren't cold enough to slow C. raea's metabolism much. After measuring the ratios of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the shells, the scientists determined that the clams grew in the winter, when food was scarce, and stopped growing in the summer, when food was plentiful. “This is the opposite of what we'd expect,” says Ivany, who believes the clams devoted summer to reproduction. The limited winter diet may be the key to their longevity, the scientists assert in this month's Geology—an idea supported by studies indicating that calorie restriction slows aging in other animals by reducing the production of free radicals.

    “This is a very impressive study,” says Karl Flessa, a paleobiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This is a cool way to see how animals adapted to their world.”

  3. Minnesota Wind Power

    CREDIT: CARLETON COLLEGE

    Carleton College windmill.

    The answer to the environmental concerns of two Northfield, Minnesota, liberal arts colleges may be blowing in the wind. Last month, Carleton College became the first school in the country to operate a utility-grade wind turbine, and St. Olaf College will follow suit next spring.

    The Carleton project arose out of a request from students at the college to “start buying energy from more environmentally friendly sources,” says facilities director Richard Strong. Because “the local utility company wasn't selling green energy,” the college decided to build its own turbine, at a cost of $1.8 million, that would take advantage of Minnesota's status as one of the windiest states in the country. The Carleton turbine, on a hill about 2.5 kilometers from the campus, is expected to supply as much as 40% of the college's energy needs, at a cost per kilowatt hour that is only 0.2 cents more than what the school pays for electricity. But Strong says that government incentives will allow the turbine to pay for itself in 10 years.

  4. A Matter Of Timing?

    “What a bit of bad luck that Dolly was born in 1997, a year before” James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, derived the first line of human embryonic stem cells. “If human embryonic stem cells had been published first and Dolly had appeared later, [cloning] would have been thought of as a potentially useful add-on.”

    —University of Cambridge researcher Anne McLaren commenting on negative public attitudes toward research cloning, speaking at this month's meeting of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

  5. Two Cultures

    CREDIT: SHANE CARRUTH

    Cinema vérité. Shane Carruth is trying to put the science back in science fiction.

    This month, selected theatres across the United States will be showing Carruth's Primer, which captured the prestigious Grand Jury Award at this summer's Sundance Film Festival for independent movies. The 32-year-old former software engineer spent the past 3 years financing, writing, and directing the movie, which is about a team of engineers who invent a time machine in their garage.

    Carruth (left), who also acts in the $7000 movie, says what sets Primer apart from much of mainstream science fiction is its realistic portrayal of scientific innovation. For example, time travel in the film is actually a fortuitous side effect of an experiment designed to reduce the gravitational pull on an object. Carruth also strove for scientific accuracy, forgoing neon lights and smoke machines for more modest props such as metal grates and rubber hoses that looked like they actually served a scientific purpose.

    Carruth hopes Primer, which also won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation award for advances in science and technology in film, won't be his last movie. But his Holy Grail is original research. “That's the real stuff,” he says. “Everything else is just [window] dressing.”

  6. Awards

    CREDIT: STEVEN HEYMSFIELD

    Good Samaritan. Doctors are known for prescribing medications, not keeping them from patients. But Steven Heymsfield, a physician and obesity researcher at Columbia University, last week won the inaugural Science and Society Award from the New York Academy of Sciences for studies on ephedra, a deadly weight loss supplement that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned earlier this year.

    The academy also honored Steven Kaye, a biology teacher at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, with its first science educator award for his work with at-risk students. The entire list of award recipients is at www.nyas.org/programs/mayor.asp

    Engineering prizes. Eli Ruckenstein has won the Founders Award from the National Academy of Engineering. Ruckenstein, a Romanian-born chemical engineer at the State University of New York, Buffalo, received the honor on 3 October for his contributions in catalysis, protein separation processes, polymer science, and materials science. The academy also honored John Slaughter, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, with the Arthur M. Bueche Award for his work in engineering education.

  7. Rising Stars

    Prep talk. John Mendelsohn (center), president of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, took time off last week to spend a few hours talking science with high school students Lawrence Linn (left) and April Ortega at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The interaction was part of Science's Next Generation, a half-day event organized by Bristol-Myers Squibb during which 24 biomedical scientists from around the country discussed their work with 150 New York students.

  8. They Said It

    I don't suppose that colored quarks and glue

    Think over much about what they're up to;

    They just do whatever comes naturally

    And leave the worrying to you and me

    Free spirits! They seemed blithely unconcerned

    With sacred lessons we'd with effort learned.

    But by invoking then heretical

    Wild hypotheses theoretical I found their workings could be understood: So the world makes sense, as it damn well should.

    The Prize recalls those days of search and find,

    Warm notes from friends bring human joy to mind;

    My heart is full, as is my thanks to you

    My In box also, I'm afraid—adieu!

    —MIT's Frank Wilczek, co-winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics, responding to well-wishers who flooded his inbox with congratulations earlier this month.