Random Samples

Science  03 Dec 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5702, pp. 1678
  1. Flipping Over a New Tail


    Fuji, a 34-year-old bottlenose dolphin at Japan's Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, was crippled by necrosis, which destroyed most of her tail. But now she's doing swimmingly thanks to a custom-designed prosthesis developed by aquarium vets and Bridgestone, Japan's largest tiremaker. Masaya Koami, Fuji's trainer, says the dolphin was initially leery of the flexible carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic prosthesis, which clamps around the tail stump. But after months of rehab, “she was jumping out of the water.” Bridgestone says it has spent close to $100,000 on the new tail and is hoping to improve the prosthesis by experimenting with more exotic materials.

  2. Verifying Art With Math

    Data points of three faces (1–3) cluster, but the other three appear to have been painted by three other artists.CREDIT: PNAS

    Scientists claim they can teach a computer to recognize the works of particular artists using a technique that requires only a digitized image of a drawing or painting.

    Three mathematicians at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, speculated that they could identify individual styles by analyzing the frequency of certain types of lines—just as writers have been identified through context-free word counts. Team member Hany Farid says that to test the idea, they used “wavelet decomposition,” a method that digitally encodes an image as a rough version followed by successive refinements. The researchers report in the 24 November online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they tried it out on eight drawings by 16th century artist Pieter Breugel and five known-to-be-fake Breugels. The computer was able to tell which ones were authentic. They also analyzed “Madonna With Child” by the 16th century Italian painter Perugino and found that the six faces in the painting were the work of four sets of hands, presumably the artist and three apprentices—a result that supports the more intuitive judgment of art experts. Ellen Handy, chair of the art department at The City College of New York, says if the technique works, and if historians and curators can figure out how to use it, “it can start to make art history … a science.”

  3. Sardines to the Rescue?

    Toxic plume off Namibia.

    For more than a century, people living along Namibia's Atlantic coast have reported frequent sulfurous submarine emanations, often accompanied by mass die-offs of fish and lobsters. Many scientists believe that these eruptions of methane and hydrogen sulfide, which are potent contributors to the greenhouse effect, are released by decaying blooms of phytoplankton that blanket the sea floor in meters-deep ooze.

    Two years ago, researchers Andrew Bakun of the University of Miami, Florida, and Scarla Weeks of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, noticed that a respite from the eruptions coincided with a resurgence in local sardine stocks. Now, in the November Ecology Letters, they speculate that sardines were eating phytoplankton that might otherwise have drifted to the sea floor. If the link is proven, Bakun says Namibia's experience could serve as a warning to other areas with similar offshore conditions, such as Morocco and California.


  4. Academia as "One-Party" System

    Universities in the United States are very keen on fostering “diversity” as long as it's not ideological diversity, according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative group of academics. Last year NAS surveyed members of scholarly societies in six fields in the social sciences, asking which political party they identified with. About 30% of the 5486 people polled responded; of these, 80% were Democrats. Economist Daniel B. Klein of Santa Clara University in California and Charlotta Stern of the Institute for Social Research in Stockholm, Sweden, conclude that because the prevalence of Democrats was even higher among younger academics, it appears that “lopsidedness has become more extreme over the past decades, and … unless we believe that current professors occasionally mature into Republicans, it will become even more extreme in the future.”

    “The ‘one-party campus’ is a problem irrespective of what one's own views happen to be,” the authors warn. (Klein says Stern is a liberal and he himself is a libertarian.) They suggest that measures could be taken—such as “proportional voting on curriculum and hiring decisions”—to enable political minority voices to be heard.

  5. Jobs


    New Fermi chief. Peruvian-born particle physicist Pier Oddone is hoping to sell Congress and the public on the value of delayed gratifi-cation. As the next director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the Department of Energy's high-energy physics facility in Batavia, Illinois, Oddone will be an advocate for the first new U.S. accelerator in decades. But he admits that it's tough “generating support for science that doesn't provide immediate applications, like a gadget or eternal life.”

    The 60-year-old Oddone, now deputy director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, succeeds Michael Witherell, who is stepping down in June to become vice chancellor of research at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


    Nerves of steel. A metallurgical engineer is in line to be the first woman president of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. The 52-year-old Indira Samarasekera, who is currently vice president of research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, will begin her 5-year term on 1 July, succeeding Rod Fraser.

    Samarasekera says she plans to promote a “creative climate where risk-taking and creative research are not only supported but fostered.” Samarasekera was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and moved to Canada in 1977 for graduate studies.

  6. Money Matters


    Shot in the arm. Information technology pioneer Bill Brehm and his wife Dee have waged a personal battle against diabetes since Dee was diagnosed in 1949. Last week they gave $44 million to their alma mater, the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, to help researchers conquer the disease.

    The gift—the second largest in UM's history—will be used to build a new $30 million center for type I diabetes research, establish a cross-disciplinary network to share diabetes information, and endow eight new faculty positions. “This could have an enormous impact on diabetes research,” says medical school dean Allen Lichter.

    Brehm, 75, hopes the center's computer network will foster collaboration by making it easier for researchers to share their results. “The goal is to create a new kind of scientific framework for discovery,” says Lichter.

  7. Datapoint

    Watchful eye. More institutions are reporting instances of falsification, plagiarism, fabrication, and other scientific fraud than ever before, according to the latest numbers from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the Department of Health and Human Services. Universities and other organizations opened 105 new research misconduct cases in 2003—20% more than the previous year's figure of 83 and 52% more than the 10-year average of 69.

    The increase may be a reflection that “institutions are getting better at recognizing scientific misconduct,” says ORI Director Christopher Pascal. “Until a decade ago, many institutions were unsure about how to handle allegations of misconduct,” he says. “Now they're a lot less shy about investigating them.”


  8. Pioneers

    An idea revisited. Nobelist Harold Varmus wanted to start a graduate school when he directed the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) but was talked out of it by advisers who argued that it wasn't needed. Now he's gotten his wish. The Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City, which Varmus has headed since he left NIH 5 years ago, is launching a new graduate school that will give students earning a Ph.D. in cancer biology a taste of clinical research.

    The idea follows a trend—translational research—promoted by his successor at NIH, Elias Zerhouni. But whereas that phrase can mean developing new drugs, Varmus wants to produce bench scientists who “know what cancer is like as a disease” but who don't want to spend extra years earning a medical degree, too.

    Named for the former IBM CEO who helped bring in $30 million in philanthropic support, the Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences will enroll a dozen students in July 2006 and build up to 60. (MSKCC has about 100 graduate students already, but their degrees are awarded by Cornell or Rockefeller universities.) Molecular biologist Kenneth J. Marians will serve as the school's dean.

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