News this Week

Science  17 Dec 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5704, pp. 2010
  1. BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

    On Mars, a Second Chance for Life

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    THE WINNER

    The Mars rovers, with the help of remote-sensing spacecraft, have sniffed out water and found the remains of one or more ancient environments where life could have survived. Indeed, early Mars is looking wetter and wetter

    BREAKTHROUGH ONLINE

    For an expanded version of this section, with references and links, see http://www.sciencemag.org/sciext/btoy2004/

    See Web links on Mars

    Inanimate, wheeled, one-armed boxes roaming another planet have done something no human has ever managed: They have discovered another place in the universe where life could once have existed. Aided by other robots in orbit and a modicum of luck, the two Mars rovers earlier this year homed in on locales once rich with water. The Opportunity rover found the salty, rippled sediments of a huge shallow sea; the Spirit rover discovered rock once so drenched that it had rotted. Their finds mark a milestone in humankind's search for life elsewhere in the universe.

    CREDITS: NASA/JPL/CORNEL

    The two Mars rovers confirmed what many scientists have long suspected: Billions of years ago, enough water pooled on the surface of Earth's neighbor long enough to allow the possibility of life. Despite tantalizing hints starting with the Viking missions almost 30 years ago, Mars scientists could never be sure whether the water-carved valleys, channels, and gullies that they saw through orbiting cameras implied the prolonged presence of surface waters.

    The Mars rovers have now put a bound on the water debate. Thanks to the hardy little robots, we know that Mars of several billion years ago was warm enough and wet enough to have a shallow, salty sea. This sea probably came and went, turning into wind-blown salt flats from time to time, but the puddles spanned an area the size of Oklahoma. Enough water passed through it to leave behind perhaps 300 meters of salt. And the dirty salt buried beneath its floor remained wet long enough to grow marble-size iron minerals.

    On the opposite side of the planet, shallow groundwater also lingered long enough to transform hundreds of meters of what appears to have been volcanic ash into soft, iron-rich rock. And the latest spectroscopy from the newly arrived Mars Express orbiter shows that the salt from all this water-weathering of martian rock lingers in depressions elsewhere, sometimes in intriguing layered deposits that fill craters around the planet. For a time, it seems, early Mars was a watery, habitable place.

    Rotted rock.

    The Spirit rover found this once-waterlogged rock that may have begun as volcanic ash.

    CREDITS: NASA/JPL/CORNELL

    The Mars rovers didn't make their breakthroughs on their own. They had help from above. Opportunity needed guidance from the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) on board the Mars Global Surveyor. TES was the first Mars-orbiting instrument to provide global coverage at infrared wavelengths where minerals leave distinctive signatures. The planet proved rather bland at TES wavelengths, but one area on the equator at the prime meridian was a glaring exception. The flat, dark Meridiani Planum jumped out as rich in gray hematite, an iron oxide. Researchers quickly came up with a half-dozen explanations for how gray hematite might have formed on Mars, most but not all of which involved water. None would prove entirely correct.

    On arriving encased in protective balloons, Opportunity needed a couple of lucky breaks. First off, it stumbled—bounced and rolled, actually—into a geologist's perfect field site. As hoped, a small impact had exposed light-toned bedrock around the rim of its crater. This proved to be the long-sought evidence for prolonged surface waters. The booming hematite signal that drew the rover to Meridiani, on the other hand, actually came from marble-size “blueberries” of solid hematite that had weathered out of the sediment and now littered the ground as far as the rover could see. If the blueberries hadn't formed and been blasted out of the softer salt by windblown sand, TES never would have recognized the water signal.

    Once on the scene, Opportunity could play field geologist to the hilt. Like Spirit, its identical twin on the opposite side of Mars, it came equipped with color-registering “eyes,” a magnifying glass, a grinding wheel for exposing fresh rock, an elemental analyzer, and two mineral-identifying instruments: a remote-sensing “mini-TES” and a “hands-on” iron mineral identifier. With these tools, it set about unraveling the geologic story recorded in the curb-size outcrop of little Eagle crater.

    Contrary to prelanding theorizing, Opportunity's story turned out to be about salt, an end product of the water weathering of rock, rather than the expected water-altered minerals. The Eagle outcrop is up to 40% salts, mostly magnesium and calcium sulfates. Much of the rest is “dirt,” rock altered beyond recognition by water. The presence of the mineral jarosite suggests that the water was quite acidic, presumably from the sulfur dioxide of early martian volcanoes. Acid waters leached salts from martian rock and flowed across the floor of a shallow sea, or perhaps a vast puddle, permanently rippling the surface of the ancient sediment.

    Then the water evaporated away, leaving the salt and dirt behind. The wind blowing across the salt flats sometimes blew the dirty salt into dunes. But beneath the surface, water persisted long enough to grow the hematite blueberries. The water came back time and time again, laying down centimeter-thick layers until 300 meters accumulated, judging by the light-toned outcrops in Mars Global Surveyor images. The salty sea or puddles appear to have spanned more than 300,000 square kilometers of Meridiani Planum. Only the orbiters' big-picture perspective could broaden Opportunity's findings this way, but only the rover could make sense of the orbiters' remote sensing.

    Salt of Mars.

    Layered dirty salt (with hematite spherule) speaks of surface waters evaporating in ancient times.

    CREDIT: NASA/JPL/CORNELL/U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

    Salty signs of long-past water were not confined to Meridiani. In Gusev crater, Spirit never did find any trace of the ancient lake-bed inferred from orbital imaging. Instead, it roved across an ancient sheet of lava pulverized by impacts. But it did find volcanic rocks coated by weathering rinds and riddled with mineral-filled veins. Presumably, these rocks had once been buried in wet soil. By luck, Spirit overshot its intended landing site a bit, putting it within driving range of the 100-meter-high Columbia Hills. Orbital imaging had given no clue as to the origin of the hills, but Spirit found them to be one big pile of finely layered, water-altered rock.

    While the rovers have provided the closest look yet at evidence of water on Mars, other instruments are rounding out the picture on a broader scale than two rovers can manage. Salty remains of water weathering have turned up in early surveys by the OMEGA spectrometer on the European Space Agency's Mars Express that went into orbit last 25 December. Largely because it has greater resolution than TES does, OMEGA found sulfates in ancient depressions such as the canyon network of Valles Marineris and in Meridiani. In Juventae Chasma, a branch of Valles Marineris, a 50-kilometer-wide, 2.5-kilometer-high, light-toned mesa sandwiches calcium sulfate between layers of magnesium sulfate.

    So Mars was wet in its earliest years, when life on Earth was getting its start. But even then, Mars was taking a different environmental path, one too stressful for any life that might have managed to take hold. Even at Meridiani, the most habitable site found so far, the water was acidic, briny, and, at least at the surface, intermittent—not a promising place for life to originate. Still, life on Earth has evolved many forms that would survive and even thrive under such extreme conditions. The rover science team has called Meridiani Planum “an attractive candidate” for future landings. And given that both sulfates and iron oxides like hematite can preserve minute details of organisms, it could even be a good spot to find samples to send home to Earth.

    Much remains to be done, however, before anyone picks a site for sample return. The leading geologic problem on Mars—the nature of light-toned, layered deposits such as those beneath Meridiani Planum and in Juventae Chasma—could be addressed by NASA's powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to be launched in August 2005. The Phoenix lander will arrive in 2008 to study the role of present-day water ice on Mars. Because the planet's poles warm up dramatically every few tens of thousands of years, ice-rich soils there could host dormant life. And in 2009 NASA may launch Mars Science Laboratory, a hulking, far-traveling analytical lab on wheels that could pave the way for future sample return. With humans on Mars a distant prospect, the robots alone will be striving for the next Breakthrough of the Year on the Red Planet.

    Online Extras on Mars

    Papers and Articles

    Selected Research Papers

    S. W. Squyers et al., “The Spirit Rover's Athena Science Investigation at Gusev Crater, Mars,” Science 305, 794 (2004)

    The first of 11 papers from Science's Spirit at Gusev Crater special issue, 6 August 2004

    S. W. Squyers et al., “The Opportunity Rover's Athena Science Investigation at Meridiani Planum, Mars,” Science 306, 1698 (2004)

    The first of 11 papers from Science's Opportunity at Meridiani Planum special issue, 3 December 2004

    S. W. Squyers et al., “In Situ Evidence for an Ancient Aqueous Environment at Meridiani Planum, Mars,” Science 306, 1709 (2004)

    Also from Science's Opportunity at Meridiani Planum special issue, 3 December 2004

    P. R. Christensen et al., “Morphology and Composition of the Surface of Mars: Mars Odyssey THEMIS Results,” Science 300, 2056 (2003) [published online 5 June 2003; 10.1126/science.1080885]

    C. F. Yoder et al., “Fluid Core Size of Mars from Detection of the Solar Tide,” Science 300, 299 (2003)

    News

    R. A. Kerr, “Heavy Breathing on Mars?,” Science 306, 29 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr,“Rainbow of Martian Minerals Paints Picture of Degradation,” Science 305, 770 (2004)

    From Science's Spirit at Gusev Crater special issue, 6 August 2004

    R. A. Kerr, “‘Mind-Boggling’ Martian Gullies Raise Climate Conundrum,” Science 304, 196 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “Opportunity Tells a Salty Tale,” Science 303, 1957 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “Life or Volcanic Belching on Mars?,” Science 303, 1953 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “A Wet Early Mars Seen in Salty Deposits,” Science 303, 1450 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “Running Water Eroded a Frigid Early Mars,” Science 300, 1496 (2003)

    Perspectives

    J. S. Kargel, “Proof for Water, Hints of Life?,” Science 306, 1689 (2004)

    F. Forget, “Alien Weather at the Poles of Mars,” Science 306, 1298 (2004)

    M. P. Golombek, “A Liquid Core for Mars?,” Science 300, 260 (2003)

    V. Dehant, “The Surface of Mars: Not Just Dust and Rocks,” Science 300, 2043 (2003)

    Interesting Web Sites

    NASA'S Mars Exploration Program

    A comprehensive resource for information on Mars missions, science, and education, complete with a multimedia gallery.

    Athena Home Page

    The site to visit for details about the Mars exploration rovers and their instruments.

    Mars Express

    Information-rich Web site of the Mars Express Orbiter mission, provided by the European Space Agency.

    MarsNews.com

    Provides the latest news about Mars.

    The Mission to Mars

    Collection of selected Internet resources and information about the red planet.

    The Nine Planets

    An online encyclopedia of the solar system with a chapter all about Mars.

  2. BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

    Doing Science Remotely

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi,
    2. Richard A. Kerr

    See Web links on remote science

    Most scientists start their careers with an urge to do hands-on science: to mix the chemicals, hammer off a chunk of rock, or feel the fevered brow. But scientists increasingly want to go where no one has gone before, or at least where no one can afford to go or would risk going: the surface of Mars, kilometers beneath storm-tossed seas, or the inside of your small intestine. Now, remotely operated or even autonomous machines are letting scientists keep their hands on things from inner to outer space.

    Take one and watch.

    “PillCam” includes a transmitter chip for beaming back views of the gut.

    CREDIT: ZARLINK SEMICONDUCTOR INC.

    The Mars rovers are the most visible in a long line of instrumented robots that have given planetary scientists a presence from innermost Mercury to beyond the edge of the solar system. No single component of a rover is a breakthrough technology like the ion propulsion that just delivered Europe's Smart-1 spacecraft to lunar orbit. Even when combined into a complex 174-kilogram package, the rovers' technology isn't very flashy. Their speed tops out at a nearly imperceptible one-tenth of a kilometer per hour, they can take a whole day to analyze one spot on one rock, and a pebble lodged in the wrong crevice can stop the show for days. But slow and steady wins the race in space. Although rover engineers predicted that both rovers would likely freeze to death in the depths of the martian winter last September, Spirit is still hobbling along with a couple of bad wheels, while Opportunity shows no serious signs of age.

    On a far smaller scale, advanced technologies are making their way into inner space. Over the past 5 years, bioengineers have made considerable strides using telemetry, miniaturized sensors, and even self-adjusting instruments to keep track of the inner workings of the human body. The efforts enable doctors to follow their patients' progress more precisely, in real time, and sometimes from kilometers away. The innovations are affecting many medical disciplines.

    For more than 20 years, doctors have been able to monitor pacemaker function remotely, but now these devices, which keep the heart beating regularly, can also detect whether their host is, say, running or sleeping and adjust the heart rate to its natural rhythm. Wireless pressure sensors implanted into repaired spines inform surgeons about the healing process, sensing the spine's increasing ability to bear weight. Other pressure-sensitive monitors fit inside the aorta to keep track of how well this artery is working. Still others fit into the eye to give feedback about pressure inside the eyeball, helping the physician know when to adjust medication. Bite-sized stand-alone cameras pass through the digestive system, sending images along the way. In particular, the camera captures what's going on in the small bowel, which otherwise requires invasive surgery.

    More imaginatively, there's talk of “smart clothes”: wearable electronics that track vital signs. Other devices may one day make sure patients take their medicines, sending a message via the Internet to warn physicians of noncompliance. Now that's hands-on.

    Online Extras on Remote Science

    Papers and Articles

    C. Van Hoof, K. Baert, and A. Witvrouw, “The Best Materials for Tiny, Clever Sensors,” Science 306, 986 (2004).

    R. A. Kerr, “Rainbow of Martian Minerals Paints Picture of Degradation,” Science 305, 770 (2004).

    R. A. Kerr, “Cassini's Magnificent Machines Run Rings Around Saturn,” Science 305, 165 (2004).

    Interesting Web Sites

    WWW Virtual Library: Remote Sensing

    Biosensors

    An Internet resource list from bmesource.org, a Web portal for the biomedical technology design community.

    Mars Exploration Rover Mission

    NASA includes a guide to the Rovers.

    Fundamentals of Remote Sensing

    A tutorial from the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing.

    NASA Goddard's Remote Sensing Tutorial

    Observation tools for exploring the ocean

    Information from NOAA's Ocean Explorer Web site.

    Sensor Webs

    Information from NASA about a new class of instruments for monitoring and exploring environments.

    “Biosensors, Nanosensors and Biochips: Frontiers in Environmental and Medical Diagnostics”

    A 2004 meeting presentation (PDF) by Tuan Vo-Dinh of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Wireless capsule endoscopy

    Information from the UK National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

    PillCam Capsule Endoscopy Image Atlas

    A collection of images provided by Given Imaging Ltd.

    UbiMon

    “Ubiquitous Monitoring Environment for Wearable and Implantable Sensors” at Imerial College London.

    2004 workshop on body sensor networks

    Presentations (PDF) from the April 2004 workshop at Imperial College London.

  3. BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

    Scorecard 2003

    Last year's forecasts of hot fields came close to the mark, on the whole.

    Three on Mars.

    Two out of three isn't bad. The feisty Beagle 2 lander separated from the Mars Express mother ship handily but was never heard from again. But the two NASA rovers performed splendidly, and Mars Express itself is returning spectacular images. Opportunity easily found its prize, water-related mineralization, although the rock turned out to be a former salt flat rather than the expected hydrothermal deposits. As predicted, Spirit had trouble finding evidence of an ancient lakebed, which seems to have been covered by lava flows. In nearby hills, though, the hardy rover discovered something almost as good: volcanic ash once soaked and rotted by water.

    ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SMITH

    See Web links on Mars missions

    Microbe militia.

    Biodefense flourished this year, as an estimated $7.5 billion flowed to efforts to develop everything from new drugs and vaccines to better sensors and new high-security laboratories. Gene libraries are filling up with data on potential bioweapons: Researchers completely sequenced the genomes of high-risk bacteria, such as anthrax, and have documented at least one strain of every virus and protozoan that might be weaponized. They've identified a cabinet full of promising treatments and started human trials on several new vaccines, including one for smallpox. But the government's new BioShield program, created to lure companies into the field, is off to a slow start, and critics say rules designed to keep bioweapons out of terrorists' hands continue to complicate research.

    ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SMITH

    See Web links on biodefense

    Genome data deluge.

    As predicted, the Internet is awash in genomic information. Chicken, rat, puffer fish, chimp, a red alga, and dozens of other genome sequences are now online, and dozens of researchers are comparing them in hopes of tracking evolution and pinpointing the causes of disease. Other researchers are busy building transcriptomes (broad looks at gene expression), interactomes (catalogs of protein interactions), regulomes (DNA elements that control gene function), epigenomes that explore nongenetic controls of gene function, and many other databases designed to illuminate how our genome works.

    ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SMITH

    See Web links on genome data

    Open sesame.

    Efforts to make scientific information freely available over the Internet continue to grow—and so does controversy over who should pay the bill. In a major victory for open-access advocates, the National Institutes of Health is close to adopting rules that would require NIH grantees to make their papers freely available 6 months after they are published. Some publishers warn that the policy will sow confusion and financial chaos and may even bankrupt some journals. Meanwhile, open-access backers suffered a setback in the United Kingdom when the government declined to earmark funds to support free journals, concluding that it's still not clear the business model will prove viable.

    ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SMITH

    See Web links on open-access publishing

    Bottoms up.

    In 2003, physicists at the BELLE experiment in Japan announced a tantalizing hint of new physics in one particular decay of B particles. In 2004, however, new data have reduced the statistical significance of that result substantially. At the same time, lesser anomalies in other types of B decay keep the hope of new physics alive, so the issue has neither disappeared nor stood out in stark relief as predicted.

    ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SMITH

    See Web links on B meson physics

    Digging deeper.

    More diverse and abundant than in any other ecosystem, the bacteria, viruses, and fungi under our feet have come to the fore in several fields: ecology, biodiversity, phylogeny, and environmental science. There's increased emphasis on the interactions between life below and above ground—for example, the effects of fungi on forest structure and the role of subterranean biodiversity on ecosystem health. These studies have driven home that the soil-microbe system is self-organized. The quest to understand this system has stimulated integrative studies that incorporate biochemical and biophysical, as well as biological, tools.

    ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SMITH

    See Web links on soil science

    Science and security.

    Tightened U.S. security continues to give both American and foreign scientists fits, although some kinks in the new systems appear to be getting worked out. Surveys showed that enrollment of foreign graduate students at U.S. universities continues to slump, but fewer students are reporting visa-related delays. Foreign scientists are still having trouble making it to meetings in the United States, particularly on short notice, but many say border controls are improving. Several scientific societies, meanwhile, are suing the government over export-control rules that could make it illegal to edit papers submitted by researchers in a handful of “sensitive” nations. And some researchers are informally challenging agency decisions that put information once in the public domain—such as certain satellite photos and geological data—out of reach.

    ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SMITH

    See Web links on science and security

    Online Extras on Last Year's Picks

    Mars Missions

    “Breakthrough of the Year: On Mars, a Second Chance for Life,”Science306, 2010 (2004)

    Article in this year's Breakthrough special issue includes references and Web links on Mars exploration programs.

    Science “Rover” Special Issues:

    Spirit at Gusev Crater (6 August 2004)

    Opportunity at Meridiani Planum (3 December 2004)

    R. Kerr, “A Tale of Two Landings, One Orbiting,” Science 303, 150 (2002)

    D. Clery, “ESA Licks Wounds, But Beagle's Loss Remains a Mystery,” Science 304, 1226 (2004)

    NASA Mars Exploration Program

    Mars Exploration Rover Mission

    Engaging, information-packed sites on NASA's Mars efforts, including rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

    Mars Express

    ESA homesite of the orbiting Mars observation platform, with some splendid images.

    Biodefense

    K Brown, “Biosecurity: Up in the Air,” Science 305, 1228 (2004)

    J. Kaiser, “Citizens Sue to Block Montana Biodefense Lab,” Science 305, 1088 (2004)

    M. Enserink, “Smallpox Vaccines: Looking Beyond the Next Generation,” Science 304, 809 (2004)

    C. M. Fraser, “Editorial: An Uncertain Call to Arms” [on the BioShield program], Science 304, 359 (2004)

    Project BioShield Home Page

    White House presentation on BioShield initiative.

    NIAID Biodefense Research

    Rich NIAID site on the Institute's biodefense research undertakings; includes extensive public-outreach section and a page devoted to the Institute's strategic plan for biodefense.

    Genome Data

    Science Special Issue: Genes in Action

    22 October 2004 special issue focused on microarrays, systems biology, noncoding regions, and other topics.

    E. Pennisi, “More Genomes, But Shallower Coverage,” Science 304, 1227 (2004)

    E. Pennisi, “New Sequence Boosts Rats' Research Appeal,” Science 303, 455 (2004)

    D. Normile, “New Global Database Lends a Hand to Gene Hunters,” Science 304, 368 (2004)

    W. Kondro, “Consortium Tackles Mouse Regulome,” Science 304, 942 (2004)

    M. V. Olson and A. Varki, “Perspective: The Chimpanzee Genome—A Bittersweet Celebration,” Science 305, 191 (2004)

    The SNP Consortium Web site

    National Human Genome Research Institute

    NHGRI Web site has programs and online lectures on genome-related projects.

    Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute

    Open-Access Publishing

    E. Zerhouni, “Policy Forum: NIH Public Access Policy,” Science 306, 1895 (2004)

    J. Kaiser, “Zerhouni Plans a Nudge Toward Open Access,” Science 305, 1386 (2004)

    J. Kaiser, “NIH Flooded With Comments on Public Access Proposal,” Science 306, 451 (2004)

    D. Clery, “Mixed Week for Open Access in the U.K.,” Science 306, 1115 (2004)

    NIH Public Access Policy information page

    Open Access News

    Weblog providing news and views from the open-access movement.

    B Meson Physics

    A. Cho, “CESR Launches Last Campaign,” Science 303, 300 (2004)

    High-Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK)

    Organization managing and operating the KEKB B-factory at Tsukuba, Japan, the site of the Belle experiment.

    BABAR

    “B-factory” at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center seeking out the roots of matter-antimatter asymmetry.

    Soil Science

    Science Special Issue: Soils — The Final Frontier (11 June 2004)

    Includes articles about soil trouble hot spots, how soil fungi help shape plant communities, the role of soil in human history, and other soil issues.

    International Society for Microbial Ecology

    Soil Ecology Society

    Soil Science Society of America

    Mycorrhiza Information Exchange

    Soils Zoo

    Brief tour of soil biodiversity, from University of Adelaide.

    Science and Security

    D. Malakoff, “Report Upholds Public Access to Genetic Codes,” Science 305, 1692 (2004)

    J. Gaudioso and R. M. Salerno, “Policy Forum: Biosecurity and Research — Minimizing Adverse Impacts,” Science 304, 687 (2004)

    D. Malkoff, “Reports Examine Academe's Role in Keeping Secrets,” Science 304, 500 (2004)

    J. Couzin, “U.S. Agencies Unveil Plan for Biosecurity Peer Review,” Science 303, 1595 (2004)

    D. Kennedy, “Editorial: Academic Health I,” Science 305, 1077 (2004)

    Y. Bhattacharjee, “Groups Urge Easing of Restrictions on Visa Policies Affecting Scientists,” Science 304, 943 (2004)

    Y. Bhattacharjee, “Foreign Scholars to Get Longer Clearance,” Science 305, 1222 (2004)

    Y. Bhattacharjee, “Suit Seeks to Ease Trade Embargo Rules,” Science 306, 30 (2004)

    Y. Bhattacharjee, “U.S. Trade Policy Creates Confusion Over Co-Authorship,” Science 304, 1422 (2004)

    Background Paper on Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism

    From the National Academy of Sciences Web site.

  4. BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

    The Runners-Up

    The News Staff

    2 The Littlest Human.

    Sometimes big discoveries come in small packages. In October, the startling news that a team of Indonesian and Australian researchers had found a new species of tiny hominid in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores made headlines all over the world, and some researchers described it as the biggest discovery in half a century of anthropological research. If the team is right, the remains of Homo floresiensis, as the species was dubbed, suggest that modern humans shared Earth with other hominids as recently as 18,000 years ago. The skeleton's very small brain—a mere 380 cubic centimeters, compared with about 1400 cm3 for H. sapiens—led its discoverers to hypothesize that it had evolved from an earlier population of H. erectus that got stuck on the island and then shrank in size to make maximum use of scarce resources.

    See Web links on H. floresiensis

    Startlingly small.

    Diminutive Flores hominid stood only 1 meter tall.

    CREDIT: R; P. BROWN/UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND, ARMIDALE, AUSTRALIA

    Such “island dwarfism” is well known among other mammals—including small elephantlike creatures found in the same cave that the diminutive humans may have hunted with sophisticated stone tools. The discovery of H. floresiensis marks the first evidence that humans might also have been subject to drastic evolutionary pressure on islands. Many avenues of research suggest that throughout prehistory, humans followed the laws of evolution like any other creature, but this dramatic demonstration remains humbling for those of us who like to see ourselves as the masters of our own fates. Indeed, some skeptical researchers have found this claim of evolutionary downsizing too much to swallow and suggest that the Flores hominid is really a pathological microcephalic modern human.

    Just how quickly the debate is resolved remains to be seen, because the best way to solve it—analyzing still-unpublished fragments of other hominids found in the cave—is now threatened by a fresh controversy over who has the right to study the tiny remains. But the discoverers of H. floresiensis predict that there are many other small hominids on the islands of Indonesia just waiting to be found.

    Online Extras on H. floresiensis

    Papers and Articles

    P. Brown et al., “A New Small-Bodied Hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia,” Nature 431, 1055 (2004)

    M. J. Morwood et al., “Archaeology and Age of a New Hominin from Flores in Eastern Indonesia,” Nature 431, 1087 (2004)

    A. Gibbons, “New Species of Small Human Found in Indonesia,” Science 306, 789 (2004)

    M. Balter, “Skeptics Question Whether Flores Hominid Is a New Species,” Science 306, 1116 (2004)

    M. Balter, “Skeptic to Take Possession of Flores Hominid Bones,” Science 306, 1450 (2004)

    J. Diamond, “The Astonishing Micropygmies,” Science 306, 2047 (2004)

    A Perspective about Homo floresiensis in this issue of Science.

    Interesting Web Sites

    Flores Man

    A Nature Web special.

    Homo floresiensis

    Information, images, articles, and links provided by the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Australia.

    “Skeleton reveals ‘Lost World of Little People’”

    News release, images, and other information from the Public Affairs Office of the University of New England, Australia.

    “Hobbit-Like Human Ancestor Found in Asia”

    An article by H. Mayell from National Geographic News.

    The Hall of Human Ancestors

    From the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution, with a section on early human phylogeny.

    Becoming Human

    A multimedia presentation from Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins.

    Fossil Hominids

    From the Talk. Origins Archive. A collection of paleoanthropology links is included.

    [Top of page]

    3 Clone Wars.

    To tabloid readers, it might have sounded like old news, but the announcement by South Korean researchers that they had managed to produce a human embryo by nuclear transfer was the first scientific evidence that the technique could work with human cells. The researchers were not attempting to create a carbon-copy baby but rather to derive embryonic stem cell lines that could provide new insights into complex diseases or eventually produce replacement cells genetically matched to a patient.

    See Web links on human cloning

    Pioneer.

    Woo Suk Hwang created a stir in February with the news that he and his colleagues had produced cloned human embryos.

    CREDIT: TED S. WARREN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Hundreds of mammals have been cloned since Dolly the sheep burst on the scene in 1997, but the psychological and political impact of the human work is still reverberating. It was the first evidence that cloning in primates is possible, contradicting earlier studies that had suggested that the location of cell-division proteins in primate eggs might thwart such attempts. Two factors were seminal: a gentler method of removing an egg's nucleus and a wealth of raw material. Sixteen young women donors provided 242 eggs for the project.

    Eggs pose a key hurdle for those who hope to repeat the experiment. Several U.K.- and U.S.-based ethics boards have said scientists must rely on oocytes from failed in vitro fertilization attempts. Such eggs are scarcer and probably less robust than those freshly harvested from hormone-boosted ovaries.

    The political impact of the work has been mixed. On 2 November, California voters, in part fueled by optimism sparked by the South Korean report, approved the creation of a $3 billion fund to support human nuclear transfer and embryonic stem cell work. But elsewhere, consensus has proved elusive. A United Nations debate over a worldwide ban on reproductive cloning ended in stalemate when countries that support the research could find no common ground with those that argue that all cloning research is immoral, in part because it creates embryos only to destroy them.

    Online Extras on Human Cloning

    Papers and Articles

    W. S. Hwang et al., “Evidence of a Pluripotent Human Embryonic Stem Cell Line Derived from a Cloned Blastocyst,” Science 303, 1669 (2004)

    G. Vogel, “Scientists Take Step Toward Therapeutic Cloning,” Science 303, 937 (2004)

    News article on the Hwang et al. results.

    G. D. Fischbach and R. L. Fischbach, “Stem Cells: Science, Policy, and Ethics,” J. Clin. Invest. 114, 1364 (2004)

    M. F. Pera and A. O. Trounson, “Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Prospects for Development,” Development 131, 5515 (2004)

    L. Hewitson, “Primate Models for Assisted Reproductive Technologies,” Reproduction 128, 293 (2004)

    G. Vogel, “United Nations Tackles Cloning Question—Again,” Science 306, 797 (2004)

    C. Holden and D. Malakoff, “Mixed Bag at the Polls for Stem Cell Researchers,” ScienceNOW, 3 November 2004

    “Scientific and Medical Aspects of Human Reproductive Cloning,” (2002)

    A report from the National Academies.

    Interesting Web Sites

    Human Embryonic Stem Cells

    An animated tutorial for a general audience. (Requires Flash Player).

    Cloning: How it Works

    An interactive guide to cloning with graphics and animations provided by Guardian Unlimited. (Requires Flash Player)

    NIH Stem Cell Information

    Comprehensive resource about U.S. federal research policy and stem cells that includes links to recent literature and funding opportunities.

    International Society for Stem Cell Research

    A rich resource for stem cell information including a news archive, topical monthly features for scientists, links to stem cell movies and images, and a stem cell primer (in PDF format).

    MedlinePlus Health Information Site on Cloning

    Beyond Dolly: The Human Cloning Dilemma

    An MSNBC news feature that includes an interactive history of cloning timeline.

    [Top of page]

    4 Déjà Condensates.

    It was another banner year for condensates, ultracold gases that display the signature of quantum mechanics writ large. The first condensates appeared in 1995, when researchers in the United States chilled a collection of atoms called bosons to the point at which they fell into a single quantum state, essentially behaving as one superatom. That achievement garnered Science's 1995 Breakthrough of the Year. Over the past year, the condensate family tree has grown.

    See Web links on condensates

    Howdy, partner.

    Signature of a fermi condensate.

    CREDIT: MARKUS GREINER/UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO, BOULDER

    Last December, physicists in the United States and Austria induced the other broad class of atoms, called fermions, to enter the realm of superatoms. To pull it off, the researchers had to induce fermions to behave like bosons. Bosons carry an internal angular momentum, or spin, with a whole-number value, a condition that allows them to share a single quantum state. But the spin of fermions is an integer plus one-half, which—thanks to the “exclusion principle” of quantum mechanics—prevents them from condensing, much as two negatively charged electrons repel one another when they get too close. The researchers wiggled their way around this inconvenience by inducing fermions to pair up into molecules with whole-number spin, which could condense just like bosons.

    The discovery may shed light on one of the trickiest problems in physics: figuring out how electrons behave in complex materials, a key step toward a detailed description of high-temperature superconductors. By tweaking their fermi condensates to vary the bonding strength between molecular partners, teams around the world systematically probed how their behavior changes as atoms grow farther apart. Already, such probing has revealed a key signature called a “pairing gap” similar to what is seen in high-temperature superconductors. Researchers also created the first supersolid, essentially a condensate in a solid. Because liquids had been condensed previously, researchers have now turned all three classes of matter—gases, liquids, and solids—into condensates.

    Online Extras on Condensates

    Papers and Articles

    M. Greiner, C. A. Regal, and D. S. Jin, “Emergence of a Molecular Bose-Einstein Condensate from a Fermi Gas,” Nature 426, 537 (2003)

    S. Jochim et al., “Bose-Einstein Condensation of Molecules,” Science 302, 2101 (2004)

    C. Chin et al., “Observation of the Pairing Gap in a Strongly Interacting Fermi Gas,” Science 305, 1128 (2004)

    E. Kim and M. H. W. Chan, “Probable Observation of a Supersolid Helium Phase,” Nature 427, 225 (2004)

    C. Seife, “Competing Research Teams Create Long-Sought State of Matter,” Science 302, 1129 (2003)

    C. Seife, “Energy Curve Confirms Paired-Up Fermi Condensate,” Science 305, 459 (2004)

    T.-L. Ho, “Arrival of the Fermion Superfluid,” Science 305, 1114 (2004)

    A Perspective about the research by C. Chin et al.

    Interesting Web Sites

    Jin Group

    The home page of Deborah Jin's research group at JILA, Boulder, Colorado. The University of Colorado provides a resource page with press releases and other information about the research.

    Ultracold Atoms and Quantum Gases

    The home page of Rudolf Grimm's research group at the Institute for Experimental Physics, Innsbruck University.

    “Fermionic Condensate Makes Its Debut”

    A 28 January 2004 article by P. Rodgers and B. Dumé from PhysicsWeb, with links to related articles.

    “Probable Discovery of a New, Supersolid, Phase of Matter”

    A press release from Pennsylvania State University about M. H. W. Chan and E. Kim's supersolid helium discovery.

    Bose-Einstein Condensation

    An illustrated presentation from Nobelprize.org.

    [Top of page]

    5 Hidden DNA Treasures.

    Biologists digging through the DNA between the genes and between a gene's protein-coding regions are unearthing new insights into how genomes work. Protein-coding sequences take up less than 10% of the human genome. The rest, previously considered a genetic wasteland, are proving quite influential for gene function. The wasteland is rich in genetic gems: short stretches of regulatory DNA, transposable elements (sequences that hop from one place to another), coding sequences that yield tiny RNA molecules, and so on.

    See Web links on junk DNA

    CREDIT: TIM SMITH

    By dissecting regulatory DNA, molecular biologists are learning about the exquisite controls that cause genes to turn on at the right time and in the right place. Short DNA sequences about 500 bases long, called activators, rev up gene expression by binding to regulatory proteins called transcription factors. Subtle differences in the arrangement of transcription factor binding sites cause gene activity to vary in different ways. Several reports this year have implicated activators as the source of genetic changes leading to the emergence of new species.

    Junk DNA is chock-full of transposable elements. New work shows that these elements, when present between the coding regions of genes, can slow or halt transcription. They also help make new genes by hopping into existing ones, thereby altering the protein code. One such event involved a key gene for nerve function.

    Junk DNA also encodes RNA, already shown to affect gene expression through RNAi (RNA interference). In yeast genes, for example, geneticists discovered that RNAi can block the binding of proteins needed to activate a gene involved in making the amino acid serine.

    The quest to uncover more gems is revving up. The National Human Genome Research Institute has a new program, Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, that aims to capture and catalog all functional DNA within this “wasteland,” starting first with 30 million bases of protein-coding and noncoding sequences.

    Online Extras on Junk DNA

    Papers and Articles

    E. Pennisi, “Searching for the Genome's Second Code,” Science 306, 632 (2004)

    A News article on the hunt for noncoding DNAs that control gene expression.

    E. Pennisi, “A Fast and Furious Hunt for Gene Regulators,” Science 306, 635 (2004)

    The ENCODE Project Consortium, “The ENCODE (ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements) Project,” Science 306, 636 (2004)

    E. Pennisi, “Disposable DNA Puzzles Researchers,” Science 304, 1590 (2004)

    J. A. Martens et al., “Intergenic Transcription is Required to Repress the Saccharomyces cerevisiae SER3 Gene,” Nature 429, 571 (2004)

    G. Bejerano, “Ultraconserved Elements in the Human Genome,” Science 304, 1321 (2004)

    H. H. Kazazian Jr., “Mobile Elements: Drivers of Genome Evolution,” Science 303, 1626 (2004)

    A review of how retrotransposons have accumulated within the genome and how this process has been important during evolution.

    C. C. Mello and D. Conte Jr., “Revealing the World of RNA Interference,” Nature 431, 338 (2004)

    N. G. Smith et al., “Evidence for Turnover of Functional Noncoding DNA in Mammalian Genome Evolution,” Genomics 84, 806 (2004) [PubMed]

    Interesting Web Sites

    NoncodingDNA.com

    A Web site dedicated to the exploration of the noncoding portion of the human genome.

    National Human Genome Research Institute

    Provides links to educational resources, funding opportunities, and genome-related research including the ENCODE project.

    NCBI Genomic Biology

    A well-organized gateway to a plethora of genomic information.

    The Institute for Genomic Research

    Joint Genome Institute

    Operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.

    [Top of page]

    6 Prized Pulsar Pair.

    Astrophysicists doubled their pleasure this year by finding the first known binary system of pulsars: spinning neutron stars that whip tight beams of radiation into space. The system's properties have startled both observers and theorists, one of whom describes the discovery as a “watershed event” in the 36-year history of neutron star studies.

    See Web links on double pulsars

    Collision course.

    The first known pair of closely orbiting pulsars will merge in 85 million years.

    CREDIT: JOHN ROWE ANIMATION

    The pulsars turned up after the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia spotted an energetic pulsar, whirling 44 times every second, orbiting a hidden object that they presumed was a nonpulsing neutron star. Deeper scrutiny revealed that the companion also pulses at a leisurely rate of once every 2.8 seconds. But jaws dropped when the discovery team announced that the slower pulsar swoops almost directly in front of the faster one as they orbit in tandem, eclipsing the fast pulsar for nearly 30 seconds each orbit.

    There's more. Blasts of particles and radiation from the fast pulsar distort the slow pulsar's magnetic field, making its radio signal flicker and nearly die out. Astrophysicists were thrilled because the eclipses and the complex interactions yield the first direct probe of the blazing plasmas in which pulsars turn on their mysterious beacons. Theorists sifting the clues say the intense wind of charged gas streaming from the fast pulsar may be nearly a million times denser than expected.

    Researchers also expect the pulsar pair to provide the most stringent examination yet of Einstein's general theory of relativity. If any deviations from Einstein's theory exist, they are most likely to arise within the superstrong gravity of a neutron star or black hole. Astrophysicists are gauging the pulsars' motions as they gradually spiral inward toward an inevitable crash 85 million years from now. These measures—aided by the ultraprecise clocks of the pulsars themselves—may reveal the density and distribution of matter within a neutron star for the first time.

    Online Extras on Double Pulsars

    Papers and Articles

    A. G. Lyne et al., “A Double-Pulsar System: A Rare Laboratory for Relativistic Gravity and Plasma Physics,” Science 303, 1153 (2004)

    M. A. McLaughlin et al., “The Double Pulsar System J0737-3039: Modulation of the Radio Emission from B by Radiation from A,” astro-ph/0407265 (2004) [arXiv.org preprint server]

    M. A. McLaughlin et al., “The Double Pulsar System J0737-3039: Modulation of A by B at Eclipse,” astro-ph/0408297 (2004) [arXiv.org preprint server]

    Maxim Lyutikov, “On the nature of eclipses in binary pulsar J0737-3039,” astro-ph/0403076 (2004) [arXiv.org preprint server]

    Jonathan Arons et al., “Probing Relativistic Winds: The case of PSRJ07370-3039 A & B,” astro-ph/0404159 (2004) [arXiv.org preprint server]

    R. Irion, “Double Pulsar Gives Astrophysicists Many-Faceted Thrills,” Science 303, 153 (2004)

    E. P. J. van den Heuvel, “Double Pulsar Jackpot,” Science 303, 1143 (2004)

    An Enhanced Perspective about the double pulsar discovery.

    Interesting Web Sites

    “First-Known Double Pulsar Opens up New Astrophysics”

    Information about the double pulsar discovery from the Jodrell Bank Observatory.

    Pulsar information resources

    Resources and links provided by the Pulsar Research Group at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

    Pulsar Education Page

    The Pulsar Group at the Australia Telescope National Facility provides an introduction to pulsars and a pulsar tutorial.

    Pulsars

    An introduction to pulsars from the Goddard Space Flight Center's Imagine the Universe.

    Pulsars

    Cambridge Physics provides an introduction to pulsars and a history of Jocelyn Bell and Antony Hewish's discovery of pulsars.

    [Top of page]

    7 Documenting Diversity Declines.

    From frogs to butterflies, ecologists and environmentalists outdid themselves this year in quantifying peaks and valleys in biodiversity. Disturbing news has come from large studies that show real declines in species richness.

    See Web links on species diversity

    Going, going …

    This leopard frog is losing ground.

    CREDIT: USGS

    Five hundred herpetologists completed the first global assessment of amphibians, and the news was not good. At workshops hosted by Conservation International and the World Conservation Union, research- ers presented data on all 5700 known amphibian species. They concluded that more than 30% were vulnerable to extinction, and some were critically endangered. Half these species might disappear over the next century, victims of overharvesting, loss of habitat, and unknown causes.

    Naturalists who have tracked butterflies, plants, and birds in the United Kingdom for up to 40 years also turned up sobering statistics. Annual surveys in 10-kilometer quadrants showed that on average butterflies had disappeared from 13% of the squares. Researchers calculated that 71% of butterfly species had lost ground. Systematic counts of bird species in the U.K. showed that their numbers had dropped by half.

    That work also found that 28% of the native plant species had disappeared from at least one square. Another U.K. study took a systematic look at grasslands growing on nutrient-poor soils. It revealed that species richness drops as the deposition of inorganic nitrogen—a product of industrial processes—increases. In some cases, the number of species declined by 23%.

    Diversity data far beyond the British Isles came from a compilation of 40 ecological studies. Lasting 2 to 5 decades, these efforts turned up 20 places where warming had changed the natural history of those areas. For example, red foxes are showing up north of their territory, barging in on Arctic foxes. Plants are flowering earlier. Birds are changing their migration habits and settling in places where food supplies have already peaked.

    Bottom line: Biodiversity continues to be in trouble.

    Online Extras on Species Diversity

    Papers and Articles

    S. N. Stuart et al. “Status and Trends of Amphibian Declines and Extinctions Worldwide,” Science 306, 1783 (2004); published online 14 October 2004 (10.1126/science.1103538)

    E. Stokstad, “Global Survey Documents Puzzling Decline of Amphibians,” Science 306, 391 (2004)

    News article on the Stuart et al. results.

    E. B. Mondor et al., “Transgenerational Phenotypic Plasticity Under Future Atmospheric Conditions,” Ecology Letters 7, 941 (2004)

    L. P. Koh et al., “Species Coextinctions and the Biodiversity Crisis,” Science 305, 1632 (2004)

    I. Armbrecht et al., “Enigmatic Biodiversity Correlations: Ant Diversity Responds to Diverse Resources,” Science 304, 284 (2004)

    J. A. Thomas et al., “Comparative Losses of British Butterflies, Birds, and Plants and the Global Extinction Crisis,” Science 303, 1879 (2004)

    E. Pennisi, “Naturalists' Surveys Show That British Butterflies Are Going, Going …,” Science 303, 1747 (2004)

    News article on the Thomas et al. results.

    C. J. Stevens et al., “Impact of Nitrogen Deposition on the Species Richness of Grasslands,” Science 303,1876 (2004)

    Interesting Web Sites

    Conservation International

    Organization dedicated to conservation worldwide offers information about conservation research and science and hosts the Biodiversity Hotspots Web site.

    The World Conservation Union

    A global partnership of government and non-government agencies organized to promote conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.

    UK National Environment Research Council Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

    Research center responsible for the Thomas et al. study of butterfly biodiversity.

    Global Amphibian Assessment

    Web site of the first comprehensive assessment of the conservation status of the world's 5,743 known species of amphibians.

    Biodiversity Informatics

    An electronic journal that focuses on the creation, integration, analysis, and understanding of information regarding biological diversity.

    [Top of page]

    8 Splish, Splash.

    After a century of intense scientific study, water still gives researchers much to scratch their heads about. This year, a flurry of papers on the structure and chemical behavior of this familiar substance revealed results that, if they hold up, could reshape fields from chemistry to atmospheric sciences.

    See Web links on how water works

    All wet?

    Synchrotron x-ray results have researchers rethinking the structure of water.

    CREDIT: GETTY IMAGE

    First and most controversial, a team of researchers from the United States, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands reported that the 100-year-old picture of the structure of liquid water might be wrong. Theorists thought slight charge differences between oxygen and hydrogen atoms pulled liquid water into an extended network, with each water molecule bound to four others in a tetrahedral pattern. But the team's synchrotron x-ray results suggest that many water molecules are, in fact, bound to only two neighbors. Don't rewrite the chemistry textbooks just yet: More-recent x-ray data back up the original structure, and debate will likely rage through 2005.

    Another dispute centers on where ions in a large body of water hang out. Do they reside at the surface or get sucked into the interior? Conventional wisdom says electrostatic forces at the water's surface repel ions that are abundant in seawater, forcing them to go deep. But researchers tracking sea salt particles in the air over Los Angeles say the particles are so rich in halides (chemical relatives of fluorine) that those ions must be present on the water's surface. This year, computer simulations supported the idea. If true, atmospheric scientists may have to ponder new types of chemical reactions occurring on the surface of aerosol particles.

    New experimental techniques are solving other mysteries. In April, a team in California reported that firing femtosecond bursts of electrons at water on a silicon surface had revealed crystallite-like ice structures that help bind water to the surface. And other groups used improved methods for making and tracking water clusters to determine how electrons and protons dissolve in water, providing new insights into aqueous chemistry. At this rate, water researchers won't be swimming in circles 100 years hence.

    Online Extras on Water Structure and Chemistry

    Papers and Articles

    Ph. Wernet et al., “The Structure of the First Coordination Shell in Liquid Water,” Science 304, 995 (2004)

    C.-Y. Ruan et al., “Ultrafast Electron Crystallography of Interfacial Water,” Science 304, 80 (2004)

    Y. Zubavicus and M. Grunze, “New Insights into the Structure of Water with Ultrafast Probes,” Science 304, 974 (2004)

    Perspective article on papers by Wernet et al. and Ruan et al.

    E. A. Raymond and G. L. Richmond, “Probing the Molecular Structure and Bonding of the Surface of Aqueous Salt Solutions,” J. Phys. Chem. B 108, 5051 (2004)

    D. Liu et al., “Vibrational Spectroscopy of Aqueous Sodium Halide Solutions and Air-Liquid Interfaces: Observation of Increased Interfacial Depth,” J. Phys. Chem. B 108, 2252 (2004)

    B. C. Garrett, “Ions at the Air/Water Interface,” Science 303, 1146 (2004)

    Perspective article covering recent work on surface chemistry of water.

    A. E. Bragg et al., “Hydrated Electron Dynamics: From Clusters to Bulk,” Science 306, 669 (2004)

    D. H. Paik et al., “Electrons in Finite-Sized Water Cavities: Hydration Dynamics Observed in Real Time,” Science 306, 672 (2004)

    N. I. Hammer et al., “How Do Small Water Clusters Bind an Excess Electron?,” Science 306, 675 (2004)

    K. D. Jordan, “A Fresh Look at Electron Hydration,” Science 306, 618 (2004)

    Perspective on papers by Bragg et al., Paik et al., and Hammer et al.

    J.-W. Shin et al., “Infrared Signature of Structures Associated with the H+(H2O)n (n = 6 to 27) Clusters,” Science 304, 1137 (2004)

    M. Miyazaki et al., “Infrared Spectroscopic Evidence for Protonated Water Clusters Forming Nanoscale Cages,” Science 304, 1134 (2004)

    T. S. Zwier, “The Structure of Protonated Water Clusters,” Science 304, 1119 (2004)

    Perspective article on reports by Shin et al. and Miyazaki et al., enhanced with Web links.

    J. R. R. Verlet et al., “Observation of Large Water Cluster Anions with Surface-Bound Excess Electrons,” Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1106719 (published online 16 December 2004)

    Interesting Web Sites

    Surface Science and X-Ray Spectroscopy Group at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory

    Includes links to information and releases regarding the work by Wernet et al.

    Laboratory for Molecular Sciences

    Caltech lab run by Nobel laureate Ahmed H. Zewail includes a wealth of information on ultrafast-electron techniques for probing water structure.

    Richmond Research Group

    The Project Descriptions page of this Web site of University of Oregon professor G. L. Richmond includes information on the use of vibrational spectroscopy to probe the behavior of ions at air-water interfaces.

    Water Structure and Behavior

    Rich, engaging tutorial on the chemistry and physics of water molecules, from Martin Chaplin of London South Bank University.

    [Top of page]

    9 Healthy Partnerships.

    A revolution in public health is fundamentally shifting the way medicines are developed and delivered to the world's poorest people. The traditional patchwork of aid givers—foundations, rich countries, various branches of the United Nations, academics, pharmaceutical companies, and charities—have joined forces in myriad joint ventures.

    See Web links on public-private partnerships

    This year, such “public-private partnerships” were behind several headline-making developments, including a promising malaria vaccine trial in Mozambique and the stepped-up efforts to provide anti-HIV drugs to the world's poor. “It's pretty interesting to see how much different it is from 10, 15 years ago,” says epidemiologist Roy Widdus, who started the Initiative on Public-Private Partnerships for Health in Geneva, Switzerland. “It really is dramatic.”

    Widdus dates the movement to the mid-1990s and the formation of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), which links academics and vaccine manufacturers to develop products for poor countries. His group has identified 91 other health-related public-private partnerships. Roughly 20 of them follow IAVI's lead in developing products that may provide new preventives and treatments for everything from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis to the more obscure tropical diseases. For example, drugmaker Novartis and the Singapore Economic Development Board this year opened the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases, which hopes to develop novel drugs for dengue fever and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

    Other partnerships aim to improve access to existing medicines. The largest—the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria—has committed $3 billion to 128 countries since 2002. Widdus estimates that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds about 75% of the partnerships.

    The boom could go bust, however, if the partnerships don't remain accountable, transparent, and productive. “These are 20-year jobs,” says Widdus. “Funders and donors change, and they're going to have to reeducate people every couple years and convince them to keep public-private partnerships fashionable items. And if they don't keep funders like Gates going, they're going to be in serious trouble.”

    Online Extras on Public-Private Partnerships

    Papers and Articles

    J. M. A. Lange and V. Thaineua, “Access for All?,” Science 304, 1875 (2004)

    Editorial in the 25 June 2004 special issue on HIV/AIDS in Asia.

    P. Piot et al., “A Global Response to AIDS: Lessons Learned, Next Steps,” Science 304, 1909 (2004)

    Policy Forum in the 25 June 2004 special issue on HIV/AIDS in Asia.

    G. Vogel, “Complex New Vaccine Shows Promise,” Science 306, 587 (2004).

    L. Roberts, “Rotavirus Vaccines' Second Chance,” Science 305, 1890 (2004).

    Interesting Web Sites

    The Initiative on Public-Private Partnerships for Health

    Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

    The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

    Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations

    International AIDS Vaccine Initiative

    Medicines for Malaria Venture

    Malaria Vaccine Initiative

    Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative

    Novartis Insitute for Tropical Diseases

    [Top of page]

    10 Genes, Genes Everywhere.

    It sounds too good to be true: Take water from the ocean or from deep underground, find the DNA in it, sequence the genes, and use them to identify the organisms that live there. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have tapped such molecular techniques to study the genetic relationships of species they can't grow in the lab. Now ambitious genome sequencers are isolating whole genomes instead of single genes. The genomes provide not only clues about an organism's identity but also a glimpse of how a particular species survives. The work is also turning up thousands of new genes.

    See Web links on genes and ecosystems

    One team of biologists sailed across the Sargasso Sea, deciphering genomes from life in 1500 liters of water samples. They turned up more than 1 million new genes. To compensate for the Sargasso's paucity of phosphorus, its denizens had evolved many genes for taking up this mineral. Furthermore, many species are using rhodopsin pigment in lieu of chlorophyll to process carbon. The researchers are now retracing Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle to explore diversity around the globe.

    Down deep.

    DNA studies revealed a mine's tight-knit microbial community.

    CREDIT: J. BANFIELD/UC BERKELEY

    Another team of environmental genom-icists has focused on a small, bizarre microbial community more than a kilo-meter down, inside an abandoned mine. The organisms thrive without light and instead get their energy by processing iron compounds. DNA in water on the mine floor yielded just five genomes, and the repertoire of enzymes found in each of the five microbes indicated that they had a close relationship, depending on one another to survive in those harsh conditions. With this community's composition in hand, researchers are now tackling a more complex community. They are sampling soil on a farm with the goal of defining the microbial biota there.

    Online Extras on Gene and Ecosystems

    Papers and Articles

    J. C. Venter et al. “Environmental Genome Shotgun Sequencing of the Sargasso Sea,” Science 304, 66 (2004); published online 4 March 2004 (10.1126/science.1093857)

    P. G. Falkowski and C. de Vargas, “Shotgun Sequencing in the Sea: A Blast from the Past?,” Science 304, 58 (2004); published online 4 March 2004 (10.1126/science.1097146)

    Perspective article on the Venter et al. results.

    G. W. Tyson et al., “Community Structure and Metabolism Through Reconstruction of Microbial Genomes From the Environment,” Nature 428, 37 (2004)

    K. Ruder, “Iron Mountain's Champion Extremophiles,” Genome News Network, 6 February 2004

    Discusses the Tyson et al. study.

    M. Dickie et al., “Ecogenomics Benefits Community Ecology,” Science 305, 618 (2004)

    Perspective that discusses a field study byKessler et al. that uses ecogenomics to elucidate the interactions between native tobacco plants and their natural insect predators.

    S. J. Hallam et al., “Reverse Methanogenesis: Testing the Hypothesis with Environmental Genomics,” Science 305, 1457 (2004)

    J. C. Venter, “Unleashing the Power of Genomics: Understanding the Environment and Biological Diversity,” The Scientist 17, 8 (2003)

    J. L. Sebat, “Metagenomic Profiling: Microarray Analysis of an Environmental Genomic Library,” Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 69, 4927 (2003)

    A.-L. Reysenbach and E. Shock, “Merging Genomes with Geochemistry in Hydrothermal Ecosystems,” Science 296, 1077 (2002)

    Review article that discusses efforts to understand the origins of ecosystems using molecular biology tools.

    Interesting Web Sites

    DOE Genomics: GTL Program

    Web site of the U.S Department of Energy microbial genomics sequencing program focused on systems biology.

    Sorcerer II Expedition Web Site

    Provides an overview of the project led by C. Venter to survey marine and terrestrial microbial populations worldwide.

    TIGR Comprehensive Microbial Resource

    Allows researchers to access all microbial genome sequences completed to date, including annotations, and perform multi-genome analyses.

    GOLD (Genomes OnLine Database)

    Comprehensive, up-to-date compendium of information on complete and ongoing genome projects around the world.

    Links to the Genetic World

    Informative page on genome sequencing and genomics from the DOE Human Genome Program information site.

    DOE Joint Genome Institute

    [Top of page]

  5. BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

    Areas to Watch in 2005

    Recycling pays. It may be harder to pronounce than “apoptosis,” but autophagy (self-eating) was on cell biologists' lips more and more this year. In autophagy, cells break down cytoplasmic molecules and portions of their membranes to provide nutrients during times of stress or starvation. After years in obscurity, the process has entered the limelight as scientists have identified genes driving it and used them to show that autophagy plays critical roles in cell growth and development, and even in disease. The momentum looks set to continue. A new journal, Autophagy, launches in January, and a Gordon Research Conference devoted to the area will be held in Italy in the spring.

    Obesity drugs. As holiday meals once again lead people to vow to exercise more, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a sweat-free alternative for our battle against obesity. More than 100 drugs targeting obesity are in the pipeline, and several should soon be submitted for Food and Drug Administration approval, especially since the agency has relaxed its guidelines to require only 1 year of safety data for such drugs. The most likely success story is rimonabant, which blocks the same brain receptors that marijuana tickles. Studies this year showed that it promotes long-term weight loss. As an added benefit, it may also curb the craving to smoke.

    See Web links on areas to watch

    Big problem.

    Firms are racing to develop new drugs to help the growing number of obese people.

    CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

    HapMapping along. The $100 million international Haplotype Map (HapMap) project is slated to wrap up toward the end of 2005—but it should bear fruit before then. The effort is developing maps built around haplotypes, shared stretches of DNA, in three populations: Utah residents with northern or western European ancestry; Chinese and Japanese; and Yoruban. Next year, the HapMap, along with a separate haplotype map assembled by the company Perlegen, may start to reveal the extent to which variation is involved in common human diseases and how DNA patterns shift across ethnicities. But the map's medical applications remain uncertain.

    Cassini-Huygens at Saturn. The Huygens probe will likely make the biggest splash in planetary science in 2005, when it parachutes to the surface of Saturn's exotic, big moon Titan. Whether it will make an actual splash at the end of its 3-hour descent is anyone's guess. Cassini's haze-penetrating instruments have so far failed to find the postulated hydrocarbon seas, but Huygens should reveal the nature of the surface at one spot at least. The seven close Cassini flybys of Titan in the coming year could help clear up the mystery as well, but don't ignore the many upcoming Cassini passes by moons, rings, and Saturn itself.

    Paper tigers. Are North Korea, Brazil, and Iran striving to develop nuclear arsenals? Conventional wisdom says yes, no, and maybe. Many analysts argue that North Korea's ultimate quest in six-way talks, expected to resume next year, is to bargain away its nuclear ambitions for economic aid and security guarantees. Brazil has barred inspectors from parts of its Resende facility, where it plans to enrich uranium for power reactors. Watchdogs are demanding more openness. After arduous negotiations with European officials, Iran last month agreed to suspend uranium enrichment while continuing to grow a nuclear power industry. In all three cases, the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has proven to be little more than a paper tiger; look for a revitalized campaign next year to strengthen the treaty.

    European Research Council. This grassroots effort to create an agency to fund basic research across Europe gained political momentum in 2004. After endorsement by Europe's research ministers in November, it should take concrete shape in 2005. New European Union research commissioner Janez Potocnik has said he supports incorporating the idea into the Framework 7 funding program, which will begin in 2007.

    Regulating nano. Nanotechnology is so broad that no single government agency is responsible for the field as a whole. So regulators in areas from consumer products, workers' health, and the environment are grappling with how best to ensure health and safety without stifling what is expected to be a major economic engine. Academic, legal, industrial, and government experts got a good start this year with meetings aimed at laying the groundwork for developing a standard nomenclature for the field and outlining the needs for research on nano's health and environmental risks. Progress should continue and broaden over the next year as countries strive to integrate their regulatory approaches.

    Online Extras on Areas to Watch

    Autophagy

    T. Shintani and D. J. Klionsky, “Autophagy in Health and Disease: A Double-Edged Sword,” Science 306, 990 (2004)

    Recent Science review article on autophagy.

    F. Reggiori and D. J. Klionsky, “Autophagy in the Eukaryotic Cell,” Eukaryotic Cell 1, 11 (2002)

    Technical review of molecular mechanisms of autophagy.

    Autophagy

    New peer-reviewed journal, launching January 2005, that will cover a variety of topics in autophagy.

    Autophagy In Stress, Development And Disease

    April 2005 Gordon Research Conference on autophagy.

    Obesity Drugs

    “New Drug Shows Promise in Helping Obese Patients Lose Weight,” 14 November 2004 (report on rimonabant clinical trial, from Medical News Today)

    E. Marshall, “Public Enemy Number One: Tobacco or Obesity?,” Science 304, 804 (2004)

    “FDA Proposes Action Plan to Confront Nation's Obesity Problem”

    March 2004 fact sheet, report, backgrounder, and FAQ on U.S. FDA's obesity initiative.

    Haplotype Map

    J. Couzin, “Consensus Emerges on HapMap Strategy,” Science 304, 671 (2004)

    D. Normile, “Consortium Hopes to Map Human History in Asia,” Science 306, 1667 (2002)

    International HapMap Project home page

    NHGRI information page on International HapMap Project

    Perlegen Sciences, Inc.

    Cassini-Huygens

    R. A. Kerr, “News Focus: Saturn — The Unfinished Symphony,” Science 304, 1230 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “Hydrocarbon Seas of Titan Gone Missing,” Science 306, 1676 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “Titan Remains Mysterious With a Hint of the Familiar,” Science 306, 952 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “Cassini's Magnificent Machines Run Rings Around Saturn,” Science 305, 165 (2004)

    R. A. Kerr, “Dirty Old Ice Ball Found at Saturn,” Science 304, 1727 (2004)

    J. J. Fortney, “Looking into the Giant Planets,” Science 305, 1414 (2004)

    V. G. Kunde et al., “Jupiter's Atmospheric Composition from the Cassini Thermal Infrared Spectroscopy Experiment,” Science 305, 1582 (2004)

    NASA Cassini-Huygens Web Site

    Marvelous public-outreach site with rich image collection, background information, and interactive features.

    Planetary Photojournal

    Clickable NASA map of the solar system takes users to a trove of planetary shots, including some from the Cassini spacecraft.

    ESA Cassini-Huygens Site

    Nuclear Proliferation

    R. Stone, News Focus: North Korea (Science, 17 September 2004)

    “Visiting the Hermit Kingdom”

    “A Wary Pas de Deux”

    “Nukes for Windmills: Quixotic or Serious Proposition?”

    “The Ultimate, Exclusive LAN”

    R. Stone, “North Korea's Nuclear Shell Game,” Science 303, 452 (2004)

    L. Palmer and G. Milhollin, “Brazil's Nuclear Puzzle,” Science 306, 617 (2004)

    R. Stone, “Coalition Throws 11th-Hour Lifeline to Iraqi Weaponeers,” Science 304, 1884 (2004)

    Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies

    Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, JFK School of Government, Harvard University

    European Research Council

    M. Enserink, “Europe Advances a Plan for Merit-Based Funding,” Science 306, 1669 (2004)

    W. Krull and H. Nowotny, “Decisive Day for European Research,” Science 306, 941 (2004)

    M. Enserink, “Only the Details Are Devilish for New Funding Agency,” Science 306, 796 (2004)

    H. Nowotny, “European Research Momentum,” Science 305, 753 (2004)

    G. Vogel, “E.U. Proposes Bigger Framework Plus a Bonus for Researchers,” Science 304, 1885 (2004)

    European Research Council Expert Group

    Includes a set of documents and links relevant to the ERC idea.

    Regulating Nanotech

    R. F. Service, “Nanotech Forum Aims to Head Off Replay of Past Blunders,” Science 306, 955 (2004)

    F. Proffitt, “Yellow Light for Nanotech,” Science 305, 762 (2004)

    R. F. Service, “News Focus: Nanotechnology Grows Up,” Science 304, 1732 (2004)

  6. BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

    Breakdown of the Year: The Unwritten Contract

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    For more than a half-century, U.S. academic scientists have thrived on a tacit promise from the federal government to support their research in return for working toward the public good and training the next generation of scientists and engineers. Relationships between the government and scientists have occasionally been strained, especially when budgets have been tight, but in general the system has operated in a relatively civil manner. And it has worked well enough for other countries to try to copy, with mixed success.

    But in 2004 that social compact took a beating. Groups of researchers accused the Bush Administration of undermining the scientific advisory system and of putting ideology before science in a number of issues from global warming to stem cell research. That elicited a strong rebuttal from the president's science adviser John Marburger, who dismissed a letter from 60 Nobel laureates criticizing the Administration's science policies as “complaints from the Democrats.”

    See Web links on science and politics

    Sign of the times.

    The unhappy message displayed on a poster of Nobelist Marie Curie—“They are getting crazy, let's rescue research”—during a Paris street protest earlier this year reflects a growing tension between researchers around the world and their governments' science policies.

    CREDIT: LAURENT REBOURS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The United States wasn't alone in witnessing this breakdown of comity. In France and Italy, researchers staged a yearlong series of protests against what they viewed as attempts to undermine the scientific enterprise, from budget cuts to the proposed elimination of tenure. Across Europe and Asia, scientists felt the sting of activists denouncing work on genetically modified crops or research involving animals. And back in the United States, educators continued to battle antievolutionists seeking to influence science instruction in public schools across the country.

    The scientific community bears some of the blame for this breakdown. The letter writers' overt sympathies for the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, made them vulnerable to countercharges that they were also putting politics and ideology before science. The well-documented sclerosis within the French and Italian research establishment is largely self-induced and can't be cured with slogans and street demonstrations. And when a scientific issue rose to the level of a national debate, as in the controversy over the use of embryonic stem cells in research, the tendency of scientists to view their critics as biomedical Luddites left little room for compromise.

    Ironically, politicians have long urged scientists to become more active in the policy arena. But this year was a reminder that there are risks involved, too. As Congress and the Administration look for ways to trim spending next year, scientists will need more friends in high places. And that means finding ways to make peace, not war, with the powers that be.

    Online Extras on Science and Politics

    The Story in Science

    Science and Politics in the U.S.

    D. Malakoff, “White House Denies Playing Politics With Science,” Science 303, 1446 (2004)

    D. Malakoff, “White House Rebuts Charges It Has Politicized Science,” Science 304, 184 (2004)

    D. Baltimore, “Science and the Bush Administration,” [Editorial] Science 305, 1873 (2004)

    A. Lawler, “Kerry Blasts Bush Over U.S. Science,” Science 304, 1888 (2004)

    A. Lawler and J. Kaiser, “Report Accuses Bush Administration, Again, of ‘Politicizing’ Science,” Science 305, 323 (2004)

    “2004 Presidential Forum: Bush and Kerry Offer Their Views on Science,”Science306, 46 (2004)

    J. Mervis, “Bush Victory Leaves Scars—and Concerns About Funding,” Science 306, 1110 (2004)

    J. Mervis, “Advice on Science Advising Leaves Plenty of Questions,” Science 306, 1450 (2004)

    Protests in France and Italy

    B. Casassus, “France: Researchers Issue an Ultimatum,” Science 303, 740 (2004)

    B. Casassus, “France: The Winter of Discontent,” Science 303, 948 (2004)

    B. Casassus, “French Protest: Reshuffled Government Hoists the White Flag,” Science 304, 191 (2004)

    A. Hellemans, “Italy: Academics Protest Plan to End Tenure,” Science 306, 1270 (2004)

  7. BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR

    Avian Influenza: Catastrophe Waiting in the Wings?

    1. Martin Enserink

    It's still primarily a bird disease, known to have killed only 32 humans since January. But H5N1, the avian influenza strain that swept across eastern Asia in 2004, killing millions of poultry, has cast a darker cloud over human health than numbers alone can explain. Experts fear that the virus could spawn a new influenza pandemic—a public health disaster of potentially devastating proportions. As Asian farmers saw their livelihoods destroyed this year, scientists made one worrisome discovery after another about the virus, and public health authorities around the globe began to take the risk seriously—only to discover that, should a pandemic erupt tomorrow, the world would be pathetically ill prepared.

    Early this year, some believed that the outbreak, which started late 2003, might still be contained by mass culling of infected and exposed birds. This strategy worked well during the first known H5N1 outbreak, in Hong Kong in 1997, and the 2003 explosion in the Netherlands of H7N7, another bird flu strain. That hope is now gone; the virus is too entrenched and the affected area too large for eradication to be feasible. Researchers also discovered that ducks, which often mingle with chickens on small Asian farms, can harbor and shed large amounts of the virus without getting sick, perhaps creating an important, almost intractable reservoir.

    See Web links on avian flu

    Bye bye bird.

    Despite massive poultry culling, the H5N1 flu strain seems here to stay.

    CREDIT: DOAN BAO CHAU/ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The realization that H5N1 is here to stay has led to several shifts in strategy. One is the growing acceptance of the idea of protecting flocks through vaccination. Traditionally, animal health experts have preferred to stamp out bird flu, as they do for many viral diseases, because vaccination can enable the virus to continue circulating below the radar screen and ignite new outbreaks; it can also lead to costly export restrictions. But vaccination has now been added to the armory of weapons to fight H5N1 in several countries.

    With respect to human health, H5N1's long-term presence has put the risk of a new pandemic—a phenomenon unseen for 36 years—on the scientific and political agenda. Pandemics arise when new flu strains, to which nobody is immune, evolve ways to replicate easily among humans. In theory, this can happen with any number of strains, but the sheer scale of transmission has now made H5N1 a prime candidate. Adding to the concerns is H5N1's unusually broad host range (it has been shown to infect mice, cats, and tigers, for instance), its high mortality rate among known human victims, and one apparent case of human-to-human transmission in Thailand.

    Nobody knows how likely a pandemic is or what its consequences would be. Past experience offers little to go on; pandemics in 1957 and 1968 were relatively mild, whereas experts put the death toll for the “Spanish flu” of 1918–19 at anywhere between 20 million and 100 million. (The world's population was less than 1.9 billion at the time.)

    The World Health Organization is urging countries to draw up plans for how to cope, and some—mostly in the developed world—have begun to do so. But the challenges are enormous. A new vaccine would take many months to develop and mass-produce, and most countries don't have that capacity. (Even production of the annual flu vaccine is fragile; a glitch at a British plant almost halved the U.S. supply this year, creating instant shortages and chaotic situations.) Antiviral drugs could help bridge the first months. But few countries are stockpiling them, and many could never afford that option.

    Experts say 2004 may well prove to be a pivotal year: one in which the danger multiplied and the world woke up. Time will tell whether it slumbered for too long.

    Online Extras on Avian Flu

    Papers and Articles

    M. Enserink, “A Global Fire Brigade Responds to Disease Outbreaks,” Science 303, 1605 (2004).

    M. Enserink, “Tiptoeing Around Pandora's Box,” Science 305, 594 (2004).

    M. Enserink, “Looking the Pandemic in the Eye,” Science 306, 392 (2004).

    J. Kaiser, “Facing Down Pandemic Flu, the World's Defenses Are Weak,” Science 306, 394 (2004).

    D. Normile, “Vaccinating Birds May Help to Curtail Virus's Spread,” Science 306, 398 (2004).

    D. Normile, “Asia Struggles to Keep Humans and Chickens Apart,” Science 306, 399 (2004).

    M. Enserink, “Bird Flu Infected 1000, Dutch Researchers Say,” Science 306, 590 (2004).

    N. M. Ferguson et al., “Public Health Risk from the Avian H5N1 Influenza Epidemic,” Science 304, 968 (2004)

    Policy Forum with Web enhancements.

    Interesting Web Sites

    Bird flu: Possible global epidemic worries health officials

    An introduction to the disease by the Mayo Clinic.

    Pandemic Influenza

    A resource page from the U.S. National Vaccine Program Office.

    Avian Influenza Special Report

    Information from the FAO's Animal Production and Health Division.

    Avian Influenza

    A resource page from the World Health Organization.

    Avian Influenza

    From the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Avian Influenza

    From the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

    September 2003 issue of Avian Diseases

    A special issue on avian influenza.

  8. NASA

    O'Keefe to Go, But Hubble Remains a Battleground

    1. Andrew Lawler

    U.S. President George W. Bush wants to put humans back on the moon and, eventually, Mars. To do that, NASA needs to phase out older programs like the space shuttle and the international space station and use the savings for moon-Mars exploration. But one of those dinosaurs—the Hubble Space Telescope—refuses to go quietly.

    Last week, a 21-member panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences told NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, in no uncertain terms, that Hubble's life should be extended (www.nap.edu/catalog/11169.html). It also argued that the telescope should be repaired as soon as possible by astronauts aboard the space shuttle rather than by sending a robot, a possibility NASA is currently considering. Accepting the recommendation might have been tough for O'Keefe, given his vocal opposition to the idea. But this week he resigned after 3 years on the job, and his successor, who may be named shortly, may find it easier to embrace the report. Debate over Hubble's future is expected to be the focus of congressional hearings as early as next month.

    Meanwhile, O'Keefe, a former business professor at Syracuse University, is up for the job of chancellor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In a 13 December letter to the president, O'Keefe says he “will continue until you have named a successor.” He said he hoped the Senate would confirm that person by February. A new NASA chief may reverse the agency's current opposition to a shuttle repair mission but will likely still struggle to balance the new exploration effort with established science, shuttle, and station programs.

    The academy report results from O'Keefe's decision in February to cancel a fifth shuttle mission to service Hubble. That decision came a year after the Columbia tragedy, which convinced O'Keefe that launching astronauts into an orbit outside that of the international space station, which could serve as a safe haven in the event of technical trouble, posed an unacceptable risk. Scrapping the servicing mission condemned Hubble to death by battery and gyroscope failure as early as 2007.

    CREDITS (LEFT TO RIGHT): ADAPTED FROM NASA; NASA
    Two-way fix.

    Report recommends fixing Hubble with astronauts (right) rather than robots (left).

    Following an outcry from Congress and scientists, however, O'Keefe agreed to consider a robotic mission instead. Lawmakers then urged creation of an academy panel to review the matter. The panel, chaired by physicist Lou Lanzerotti of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, spent more than 6 months examining what kind of mission, if any, would make the most sense.

    The panel concluded that, first, Hubble is worth saving because of its tremendous contributions to our knowledge of the universe, and, second, that NASA should resurrect its plans to service it with the shuttle “as early as possible after return to flight.” “It was clear that the shuttle approach was a much lower mission risk” than sending a robot, says Richard Truly, a former NASA chief who was on the panel. “This is a mission which has been accomplished four times in the past.”

    The panel also found that the risk to astronauts was not appreciably higher than on a flight to the space station, even though they would have nowhere to go if the shuttle encounters trouble. “If going to the international space station is worth the risk, we believe it is worth the risk to go to Hubble,” says panel member Roger Tetrault, who also served on the Columbia accident investigation board. If NASA succeeds in taking care of the technical issues that led to the Columbia failure, “then the need for a safe haven becomes extremely diminished,” adds Tetrault. Even so, the panel members noted, a second shuttle could be waiting on the launch pad in case of on-orbit trouble.

    A robotic flight, the panel concluded, offers the unsavory mixture of a high technical risk and a low chance of being ready before Hubble's operating systems give out. A separate report done for NASA by the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, California, came to a similar conclusion, adding that the cost of a full robotic mission could surpass $2 billion (Science, 24 September, p. 1882). The cost of a shuttle mission is hard to pin down, but it could be half that of a robotic flight. It's also more likely to be paid out of NASA's shuttle budget rather than the agency's $4 billion research fund.

    Lanzerotti's panel recommended that NASA return to Hubble on the seventh or eighth flight following resumption of operations next summer. Depending on flight rate, that would mean a mission in about 2 years. By then, Truly noted at an 8 December press conference, any bumps in the post- Columbia shuttle system should be ironed out. The new batteries, gyroscopes, and instruments to extend Hubble's life into the next decade have already been built.

    The committee's conclusions underscore what many astronomers have been arguing for months. “The case has been clear from the beginning: There are no significant safety issues, and the robotic mission was a pipe dream,” says Princeton University astronomer John Bahcall. For Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which operates Hubble, they are further confirmation of the telescope's importance. “Any means by which Hubble can be serviced soon is a great relief to us.”

    Lawmakers who support Hubble and who backed creation of the academy panel expressed satisfaction with the result. “It's time to fix Hubble; Congress and the American people expect nothing less,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the ranking minority member of NASA's spending panel. Mikulski successfully pushed for $291 million to fund a Hubble servicing mission in the agency's 2005 budget. And Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) of the House Science Committee said he expected NASA to “heed the academies' assessment and move forward to implement its recommendations so that Hubble can continue its program of scientific exploration and discovery.” Both House and Senate lawmakers pledged to hold hearings on the matter early in the new year.

    NASA is studying the recommendations, says agency spokesperson Robert “Doc” Mirelson. In the meantime, he says, NASA will continue work on a robotic flight but “will not do anything to preclude a space shuttle mission.”

  9. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

    Nominee Scores Cabinet Hat Trick

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The Bush Administration is revamping its domestic policy lineup with people it knows and trusts (see next page). Few people fit the bill better than Samuel Bodman, who last week was nominated to head the Department of Energy. That's good news for science, say those who have worked with him.

    The 66-year-old Bodman has already served nearly 4 years as deputy secretary at the departments of Commerce and Treasury. Trained as a chemical engineer, he's been an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a venture capitalist, and CEO of Cabot Corp., a Boston-based specialty chemical and energy company. In taking over for Spencer Abraham as energy secretary—his confirmation is seen as a no-brainer for the Senate—Bodman is expected to bring the same straightforward management style that has won him plaudits in his two previous jobs.

    Recycler.

    Samuel Bodman is tapped as Energy Secretary.

    CREDIT: LAWRENCE JACKSON/AP PHOTO

    “This is a Cabinet secretary who understands what research and innovation is all about because he's lived it,” says David Peyton of the National Association of Manufacturers. “His ability to focus on research will depend on outside events, of course, but he knows how to ask the tough questions.”

    Bodman brings an unusual level of scientific expertise to a post often held by politicians and party loyalists, notes Bruce Mehlman, a consultant who served under Bodman as head of technology policy at the Commerce Department. Mehlman recalls that a trip to the National Institute of Standards and Technology to give a speech was, for Bodman, “like being a kid in a candy store.”

    Academic leaders also like what they've seen of him. “At Cabot he led with an extraordinary commitment to integrity,” says chemist Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and a director of the $1.8 billion company. “I think the technical leadership within this Administration is dramatically strengthened with this appointment.”

  10. BUSH CABINET

    EPA's Leavitt Tapped for Health Post

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser,
    2. Erik Stokstad

    In an unexpected Cabinet shuffle, the Bush Administration this week nominated Michael Leavitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to take over the reins at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He will replace Tommy Thompson, who announced his resignation on 3 December.

    The front-runner was thought to be Mark McClellan, a physician and economist who now heads Medicare. But some researchers who know Leavitt are pleased, citing his reputation as a political moderate and supporter of biomedical technology as three-term governor of Utah. “I think he'll be terrific,” says Stephen Prescott, executive director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

    HHS-bound.

    EPA's Mike Leavitt stays in town.

    CREDIT: KATSUMI KASAHARA/AP PHOTO

    Leavitt spent only 13 months at EPA, succeeding Christine Todd Whitman. Former EPA science chief Paul Gilman says Leavitt insisted on grounding regulations in science, although many environmentalists feel that the agency has been too friendly to industry. But even skeptics agree that EPA has avoided the criticism Thompson faced at HHS for its alleged politicization of science (Science, 10 December, p. 1876). At press time the president had not nominated a replacement for Leavitt.

    As governor of Utah, Leavitt was a strong proponent of state support for technology to boost the economy. His administration expanded engineering education at universities and helped fund a nonprofit demographic and genetic database on Utah's population. “He was a very big supporter of science with a public health impact,” Prescott says.

    Leavitt's views on human embryonic stem cells, a likely hot-button issue next year, are not known. That and drug safety reviews at the Food and Drug Administration, which is under his jurisdiction, are likely to be discussed at Leavitt's Senate confirmation hearing.

  11. QUANTUM PHYSICS

    The Quantum Perfect Storm

    1. Adrian Cho

    In Sebastian Junger's 1997 bestseller The Perfect Storm, two storms merge to form a gargantuan cyclone. Now, physicists have spotted the quantum-mechanical equivalent: the merging of several tiny whirlpools of current in a superconductor into a single “giant vortex.” Fulfilling a decades-old prediction, the observation may foreshadow stranger things to come and help lay the groundwork for the budding field of “fluxonics.”

    Researchers have had indirect evidence of the giant vortices (actually less than a micrometer across) and have been striving to image them with sophisticated scanning techniques. But Akinobu Kanda of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, Ben Baelus of the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and colleagues have taken a shortcut to the first direct evidence for the jumbo swirls, as they report in the 17 December Physical Review Letters. “It's clever,” says Simon Bending, a physicist at the University of Bath, U.K. “In hindsight, I don't know why we didn't do this.”

    Whirlpools of current arise when a magnetic field penetrates a superconductor, in which current flows without loss of energy. The magnetic field threads the eyes of the “vortices,” and thanks to quantum mechanics, each vortex contains precisely one fundamental quantum of magnetic flux. The vortices repel one another, so they arrange themselves in a triangular pattern. If the superconductor is tiny, however, the cramped vortices should form more exotic patterns and even merge into one jumbo vortex containing several flux quanta, according to the prevailing Ginzburg-Landau theory of superconductivity.

    Bull's-eye.

    Instead of the usual triangular pattern, vortices in a tiny superconducting disk can form a more complicated pattern (right, top) or merge into a giant vortex (right, bottom).

    CREDIT (LEFT TO RIGHT): J. C. SÉAMUS DAVIS/CORNELL UNIVERSITY; BEN BAELUS/UNIVERSITY OF ANTWERP

    Since the 1990s, physicists had found indirect evidence of the giant vortices by studying the magnetization of a tiny superconducting disk in a varying magnetic field, among other techniques. But they inferred the current distribution from computer simulations. Kanda and colleagues probed the currents directly, by placing two tiny electrodes called “tunnel junctions” on the edge of a 1.5-micrometer-wide aluminum disk 120 degrees apart. They measured the voltage from each junction to a third electrode 120 degrees from each of the other two. The voltages depended on the currents flowing under the tunnel junctions. So if the disk contained a single, symmetrical giant vortex, the two voltages should go up and down together as the magnetic field through the disk changed slightly. If the disk contained a less symmetrical pattern of several vortices, the two voltages should change independently.

    The researchers ramped up the magnetic field so that the disk contained several flux quanta and then varied the field to change number. Each time the number changed, the two voltages jumped, which allowed the experimenters to keep the tally as they looked for the subtler signals. In the relatively quiescent times between some jumps, the two voltages went their own ways, indicating several vortices. In between others, the voltages varied in parallel indicating a single vortex. Thus, the researchers demonstrated the merging of individual vortices into one big vortex.

    “This evidence is probably 10 times stronger than before,” says Andre Geim of the University of Manchester, U.K., who performed the magnetization measurement. Victor Moshchalkov of Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium says the experiment is a step toward observing even stranger vortices, including ones containing fractional flux: “There's a lot of new physics coming up.”

    In the meantime, Kanda hopes to use the technique to monitor and control the positions of vortices in so-called fluxonic devices. Whereas electronic microchips shuttle electrons, fluxonic chips would shuttle vortices, so that information would literally swirl through them.

  12. SEISMOLOGY

    Eavesdropping on Faults to Anticipate Their Next Move

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Any active earthquake fault talks to its neighbors, urging some to rupture and cautioning restraint among others. The language of faults is stress (Science, 22 October 1999, p. 656). The more of it a fault hears, the more likely the fault is to fail, causing an earthquake; take away the stress, and a fault's failure is delayed. Seismologists studying this language of stress have now come out with their most comprehensive attempt to reconstruct past conversations among faults, with an eye toward forecasting where the next moderate to large quakes will strike. Drawing on 160 years of quake history, this latest model builds the most detailed picture yet of present-day crustal stress across the San Francisco Bay area. It's a cautionary picture for residents of the East Bay.

    The Bay Area effort “is the first attempt to build a complete model” of evolving crustal stress, says Roland Burgmann of the University of California, Berkeley. “It's an important step and really is the way to go with earthquake hazard forecasting.”

    Forecasting stress on faults is something like forecasting the weather using computer models. Both involve Earth systems that evolve over time, given relevant driving forces. In the Bay Area stress model described by seismologists Fred Pollitz, William Bakun, and Marleen Nyst of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, in the 30 November online Journal of Geophysical Research, the system is a 100-kilometer-thick block of crust and underlying mantle. It spans the 130-kilometer-wide boundary where the great Pacific tectonic plate is trying to push past North America. The model's chunk of Earth has a San Andreas fault slicing through the upper crust just west of San Francisco, with secondary faults splaying off the San Andreas to the east.

    The Menlo Park model also includes the usual processes that determine how high stress gets at any one spot. The two plates move by each other while locked together, deforming the crustal block as if it were so much rubber and steadily loading stress evenly across it. Episodically, earthquakes release and redistribute some of that stress. When a segment of fault ruptures, it relieves stress around the fault—forming a “stress shadow”—but adds stress to the crust beyond the ends of the ruptured segment.

    Stress quilt.

    Earthquakes have cast “shadows” of low stress (blue) over the Bay Area, but growing pockets of high stress (gray) remain.

    CREDIT: F. POLLITZ

    Unlike its predecessors, the Menlo Park model's lower crust and mantle can not only deform as stress changes but also slowly flow, redistributing crustal stress farther afield and weakening a stress shadow faster than in previous models. Pollitz also included 15 earthquakes since 1838, not just the great San Francisco quake of 1906.

    With its greater realism, the Menlo Park model painted a fairly accurate picture of stress accumulation, to judge by where quakes struck. All but one of the 22 moderate or large quakes of the past 160 years struck on faults the model indicates were under higher-than-average stress. The 1906 quake started in a high-stress area, according to the model. The huge 1906 stress shadow shrank back across many area faults, which presumably triggered the jump in seismic activity around 1980. And there have been no substantial quakes in the sizable shadow that the model predicts was cast by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.

    In the model's rendition of current stress, two areas of highest stress stand out. Each runs east-west, with its western end overlapping the Rodgers Creek fault north of the bay and the northern Hayward fault (essentially the southern extension of Rodgers Creek) just east of the bay, around densely populated Oakland and Berkeley. In 2002, the Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities established by the USGS gave the Hayward-Rodgers Creek fault its highest probability for a single fault.

    Despite reservations about some details, seismologist Robert Simpson of USGS in Menlo Park (not a co-author of the paper) calls the new stress map “quite an impressive achievement.” Such modeling could point to the most likely places for the next quakes, but researchers will still have to do more than eavesdrop if they are going to forecast not just where, but when, the next quake is going to strike.

  13. BIODEFENSE

    Experts Warn Against Censoring Basic Science

    1. Eliot Marshall

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—Bioterrorism emerged from a potential to a real nightmare 3 years ago when anthrax-laden letters killed five people in the United States. But governments should not respond by screening publications to keep risky-looking information out of terrorists' hands, a new report concludes.* Instead, says the 13 December paper issued jointly by the U.K.'s Royal Society (RS) and the Wellcome Trust, governments should ask scientific societies and funding institutions to take more responsibility for vetting and preventing the dissemination of risky technical details. For example, it suggests that grant review forms could include a check box for bioterror issues to ensure that they are considered.

    The recommendations come out of a conference of 66 experts in October organized by the RS and the Wellcome Trust. The participants' “strongly held view,” according to the report, is that censoring basic research would not prevent terrorist attacks but could make it more difficult to anticipate and prevent harm. Although many were skeptical of codes of conduct and ethics programs, the group recommended that scientists draw up their own standards for preventing the release of risky data and enforce them. In “very rare cases,” the report says, “consideration could be given to delaying publication of highly sensitive information, or releasing only some of the information into the public domain.” It does not say how this should be done.

    Wellcome Trust director Mark Walport said during the meeting that “we must be seen to have our house in order.” He later summarized the consensus: “Self-governance by the scientific community rather than new legislation is the best way forward.”

  14. NEUROSCIENCE

    Mutant Gene Tied to Poor Serotonin Production and Depression

    1. Constance Holden

    Researchers are closely scrutinizing a gene that could explain why some people are depressed—and also why they don't respond to antidepressant drugs that act on the neurotransmitter serotonin. A team headed by cell biologist Marc Caron of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has found that a group of severely depressed people were 10 times as likely as nondepressed controls to have a gene variant that reduces the expression of serotonin in the brain.

    It's “a very exciting finding, as it represents the first functional [variant] in the key enzyme that synthesizes brain serotonin,” says neuroscientist Huda Akil of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “This is exactly what the ‘serotonin hypothesis’ of depression would have predicted.” The study “suggests that we can begin to break major depression into subgroups,” adds psychiatrist Thomas Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health.

    The focus of the new study is the gene for tryptophan hydroxylase-2 (Tph2), an enzyme that controls serotonin production in the brain. The researchers had established in earlier mouse studies that there is a direct connection between Tph2 variation and the rate of serotonin synthesis (Science, 9 July, p. 217). More recently, they found that human cells expressing one mutant form of the enzyme produced 80% less serotonin than is made by cells expressing the more common form. In the current study, reported online in Neuron on 9 December, Caron's group reveals that in a group of 87 elderly patients with a history of major depression, nine carried the mutated gene variant encoding the poor producer of serotonin, compared with just three in a control group of 219 individuals.

    Running low.

    A mutant gene that decreases serotonin production may spur depression and stymie antidepressants.

    CREDIT: JOSE LUIS PELAEZ INC./CORBIS

    Moreover, even though they weren't diagnosed with depression, the three control subjects with the Tph2 mutation still had problems, such as generalized anxiety, mild depression, or family histories of alcohol abuse or mental illness. The mutation, which changes the enzyme by a single amino acid, appears to be specific to unipolar depression—no one in a group of 60 patients with manic depression, or bipolar disorder, had it.

    This is the first gene linked to unipolar depression that has a documented functional effect in brain chemistry, according to Caron. Last year a team headed by Avshalom Caspi of King's College, London, tied vulnerability to depression to a mutant version of a transporter gene that fine-tunes transmission of serotonin (Science, 18 July 2003, pp. 291, 386). However, says Caron, that was an association study and not one in which the mutation was clearly shown to affect serotonin in the brain. “That's the exciting thing about our mutation,” explains Caron. “We have been able to document in a biochemical way that it does affect function.”

    Caron and his colleagues suggest that the mutation could help predict who will be helped by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac. Seven of the depressed subjects with the mutant Tph2 allele failed to respond to SSRIs, and the other two required extremely high doses. Apparently, patients with the mutation put out so little serotonin that SSRIs, which cause the chemical to linger in a synapse, make little difference.

    What's more, citing unpublished mouse studies, Caron hints that the mutation could play a role in some of the problems associated with SSRI use, including extreme agitation, psychosis, and suicidal behavior. Such reactions have caused both the United Kingdom and the United States to issue warnings about prescribing SSRIs to children and adolescents.

    Depression is likely influenced by many different genes, but if future, larger studies support the importance of Tph2 variants, says Akil, “it would represent a real breakthrough” that could help clinicians detect susceptibility to depression as well as tailor drug treatment to a patient's genetic profile. Says Insel: “This is just the first paragraph in what will be a long and fascinating new chapter about serotonin and depression.”

  15. JAPANESE UNIVERSITIES

    Junior Faculty Hope Name Change Will Lead to Greater Independence

    1. Hiromi Yokoyama*
    1. Hiromi Yokoyama is a freelance science writer in Tokyo.

    TOKYO—Sometimes, it's hard to distinguish an assistant professor at a Japanese university from a professor's assistant. By tradition and law, Japanese academic departments are broken up into koza (chairs), in which a full professor oversees one or two assistant professors as well as lecturers and research associates. The professor will often pick the assistant's research topics—and take credit for the results—or, conversely, fill their schedule with teaching duties.

    But change is coming. Last month, a Ministry of Education advisory committee recommended scrapping the koza system. Assistant professors would become associate professors with the same educational and research duties as professors but at a lower rank. Lecturers and research associates would also receive greater independence.

    The koza scheme, borrowed in the mid-1800s from the German academic model, “has gotten out of date,” says Yasuhiko Torii, an economist and former president of Keio University, who heads the advisory committee. “Sometimes younger scientists have no research freedom.” The koza structure and the status of assistant professors and lecturers are defined by several laws that the committee wants amended.

    Team effort.

    Gifu University's Kenichi Tezuka says he already shares responsibility with his chair.

    CREDIT: D. NORMILE

    Some academics welcome the recommendations. “It's a change for the better,” says Kumiko Ogoshi, a research associate in environmental health at Nara Medical University, who in 2002 won $1100 from her university after suing her professor for “academic harassment.” But the real test, she says, will be seeing who actually makes the decisions on promotions and assignments. “If [such decisions] are still up to a single professor, the recommendations should be reconsidered,” she says.

    Departments at many leading universities have already abandoned the koza system and strengthened the hand of younger scientists. “In my case, I independently conduct my own research,” says Kenichi Tezuka, an assistant professor specializing in bone biology at the Graduate School of Medicine of Gifu University in Gifu City. He and his professor split the koza's teaching and administrative duties, he adds.

    The new system will need to retain some flexibility to account for the differences among disciplines and universities, says advisory committee member Reiko Kuroda, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Tokyo and a member of the advisory committee. She feels that a more clearly defined status for associate professors should also foster competition—and thus strengthen the research enterprise—by making it easier for academics to move to a new institution.

    The committee is soliciting comments and hopes to finalize its recommendations next spring. They would go into effect in 2006 or 2007.

  16. INFLUENZA

    WHO Adds More "1918" to Pandemic Predictions

    1. Martin Enserink

    Call it a crash course in the vagaries of risk communication. Until now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been deliberately cautious in estimating how many people a new influenza pandemic might kill. Dire projections, WHO officials have worried, could damage its credibility. But last week, the agency bowed to experts—including one from its own ranks—who have been ratcheting up the projected death toll in recent months. WHO conceded in a statement that scientifically valid assumptions range as high as 50 million or more—at least seven times WHO's previous maximum number.

    How deadly a pandemic will be depends on many factors: for instance, the pathogenicity of the new virus strain, the speed at which it spreads, and how much vaccine is available. Although the specter of millions of deaths might help inject a sense of urgency into the worldwide campaign to prepare, says WHO flu chief Klaus Stöhr, such estimates may also erode trust if the numbers prove too high, or if the pandemic fails to materialize within the next few years.

    Doing the math.

    Klaus Stöhr prefers cautious flu death toll estimates.

    CREDIT: WHO

    That's why WHO stuck to a conservative message, Stöhr says. On its Web site, it cited data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, showing that “today, a pandemic is likely to result in 2 to 7.4 million deaths globally.” The numbers were produced by CDC health economist Martin Meltzer, who used a computer model based on a virus strain similar to the one that caused a mild pandemic in 1968.

    But others say the next pandemic strain may just as well be highly virulent, like the one that caused the 1918–19 Spanish flu, which claimed at least 20 million lives and perhaps many more. WHO's earlier numbers are “rather ridiculous,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. In a 25 November e-mail to Stöhr, Osterholm pointed out that given today's world population, a 1918-like virus could kill at least 72 million. “World leaders need to get this message,” Osterholm says. On 29 November, a similar message was sounded by Shigeru Omi, director of WHO's Western Pacific Region Office in Manila, who broke ranks by saying publicly that the toll could be as high as 20 million, 50 million, or “in the worst case,” 100 million.

    Initially, WHO had hoped to end the debate by coming up with new, science-based numbers itself. But there's simply too little anyone can say with any certainty, according to WHO spokesperson Richard Thompson. So a carefully worded statement issued on 8 December and approved at the highest levels simply concludes that experts' estimates “have ranged from 2 million to over 50 million. All these answers are scientifically grounded.” The statement calls the earlier 2-to-7-million estimates “best-case scenarios.”

    The new statement is “still lacking in leadership,” Osterholm says. But Peter Sandman, a risk communications consultant from Princeton, New Jersey, who has advised WHO, says the new statement is “a huge improvement” because it acknowledges the scientific uncertainty rather than favoring one scenario.

  17. ARCHAEOLOGY

    The Indus Script--Write or Wrong?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    For 130 years scholars have struggled to decipher the Indus script. Now, in a proposal with broad academic and political implications, a brash outsider claims that such efforts are doomed to failure because the Indus symbols are not writing

    Academic prizes typically are designed to confer prestige. But the latest proposed award, a $10,000 check for finding a lengthy inscription from the ancient Indus civilization, is intended to goad rather than honor. The controversial scholar who announced the prize last month cheekily predicts that he will never have to pay up. Going against a century of scholarship, he and a growing number of linguists and archaeologists assert that the Indus people—unlike their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries 4000 years ago—could not write.

    That claim is part of a bitter clash among academics, as well as between Western scientists and Indian nationalists, over the nature of the Indus society, a clash that has led to shouting matches and death threats. But the provocative proposal, summed up in a paper published online last week, is winning adherents within the small community of Indus scholars who say it is time to rethink an enigmatic society that spanned a vast area in today's Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan—the largest civilization of its day.

    The Indus civilization has intrigued and puzzled researchers for more than 130 years, with their sophisticated sewers, huge numbers of wells, and a notable lack of monumental architecture or other signs of an elite class (see sidebar on p. 2027). Most intriguing of all is the mysterious system of symbols, left on small tablets, pots, and stamp seals. But without translations into a known script—the “Rosetta stones” that led to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform in the 19th century—hundreds of attempts to understand the symbols have so far failed. And what language the system might have expressed—such as a Dravidian language similar to tongues of today's southern India, or a Vedic language of northern India—is also a hot topic. This is no dry discussion: Powerful Indian nationalists of the Hindutva movement see the Indus civilization as the direct ancestor to Hindu tradition and Vedic culture.

    Searching for script.

    Richard Meadow excavates at Harappa.

    CREDITS: COURTESY OF THE HARAPPA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROJECT/PHOTOS BY R. H. MEADOW

    Now academic outsider Steve Farmer (see sidebar on p. 2028) and two established Indus scholars argue that the signs are not writing at all but rather a collection of religious-political symbols that held together a diverse and multilingual society. The brevity of most inscriptions, the relative frequencies of symbols, and the lack of archaeological evidence of a manuscript tradition add up to a sign system that does not encode language, argue historian Farmer and his co-authors, Harvard University linguist Michael Witzel and computational theorist Richard Sproat of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Instead, they say the signs may have more in common with European medieval heraldry, the Christian cross, or a bevy of magical symbols used by prehistoric peoples.

    This idea has profound implications for how the Indus civilization lived and died. Instead of the monolithic, peaceful, and centralized empire envisioned by some scholars, the authors say that the new view points to a giant multilingual society in which a system of religious-political signs provided cohesion.

    Their thesis has bitterly divided the field of Indus studies, made up of a small and close-knit bunch dominated by Americans. Some respected archaeologists and linguists flatly reject it. “I categorically disagree that the script does not reflect a language,” says archaeologist J. Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who co-directs a dig at the key site of Harappa in Pakistan. “What the heck were they doing if not encoding language?” Asko Parpola, a linguist at Finland's University of Helsinki who has worked for decades to decipher the signs, says. “There is no chance it is not a script; this is a fully formed system. It was a phonetic script.” Linguist Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia says that it is not possible to “prove” the script cannot be deciphered. All three argue that Farmer's thesis is a pessimistic and defeatist approach to a challenging problem. Meanwhile, the very idea that the Indus civilization was not literate is deeply offensive to many Indian nationalists.

    Yet since a 2002 meeting at Harvard University at which Farmer laid out a detailed theory—and was greeted with shouts of derision—he has attracted important converts, including his co-authors. A growing cadre of scholars back the authors' approach as a fresh way to look at a vexing problem and an opportunity to shed new light on many of the mysteries that haunt Indus research. Harvard anthropologist Richard Meadow, who with Kenoyer directs the Harappa project, calls the paper “an extremely valuable contribution” that could cut the Gordian knot bedeviling the field. Sanskrit and South Asian linguist Witzel says he was shocked when he first heard Farmer's contention in 2001. “I thought I could read a few of the signs,” Witzel recalls. “So I was very skeptical.” Now he is throwing his scholarly weight behind the new thesis, as a co-author of the paper and also editor of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, an online journal aimed at rapid publication, which published the paper. Addsarchaeologist Steven Weber of Washington State University in Vancouver: “Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to ask the really basic questions.” Weber, who is now collaborating with Farmer, adds that “the burden of proof now has to be on the people who say it is writing.”

    Seeking the Write Stuff

    Since the 1870s, archaeologists have uncovered more than 4000 Indus inscriptions on a variety of media. Rudimentary signs appear around 3200 B.C.E.—the same era in which hieroglyphics and cuneiform began to appear in Egypt and Iraq. By 2800 B.C.E., the signs become more durable, continuing in use in later periods; the greatest diversity starts to appear around 2400 B.C.E. Some signs are highly abstract, whereas others seem to have obvious pictographic qualities, such as one that looks like a fish and another that resembles a jar. Both are used frequently; the jar sign accounts for one in 10 symbols, says Possehl. As in Mesopotamia, the signs typically appear on small tablets made of clay as well as on stamp seals. The seals often are accompanied by images of animals and plants, both real and mythical.

    The signs start to diminish around 1900 B.C.E. and vanish entirely by 1700 B.C.E., when the Indus culture disappears. Oddly, the inscriptions are almost all found in trash dumps rather than in graves or in primary contexts such as the floor of a home. “They were thrown away like expired credit cards,” says Meadow.

    No one had ever seriously questioned whether the signs are a form of writing. But scholars hotly debate whether the system is phonetic like English or Greek or logosyllabic—using a combination of symbols that encode both sound and concepts—like cuneiform or hieroglyphics. Even the number of signs is controversial. Archaeologist and linguist S. R. Rao of India's University of Goa has proposed a sign list of only 20, but Harvard graduate student Bryan Wells is compiling a revised list now numbering 700; most estimates hover in the 400 range.

    Farmer and colleagues reanalyzed the signs, drawing on published data from many sites and unpublished data from the Harappa project provided by Meadow. They found that the average Indus inscription, out of a total of 4000 to 5000 in a 1977 compilation, has 4.6 signs. The longest known inscription contains 17 signs, and fewer than 1% are as long as 10 symbols. The authors argued that such short “texts” are unprecedented for actual writing. Although many scholars assert that longer inscriptions may have been made on perishable materials, the authors note that there is no archaeological evidence of the imperishable paraphernalia that typically accompanies literate culture, such as inkpots, rock inscriptions, or papermaking devices.

    Farmer and colleagues also take apart a long-held assumption that the frequent repetition of a small number of Indus signs is evidence of a script encoding language. About 12% of an average English text, for example, consists of the letter “E,” often used repeatedly in a single sentence to express a certain sound. In contrast, the paper notes that very few Indus symbols are repeated within individual inscriptions, implying that the signs do not encode sounds.

    Further, the authors note that many Indus symbols are incredibly rare. Half of the symbols appear only once, based on Wells's catalog; three-quarters of the signs appear five times or fewer. According to the 1977 compilation put together by Iravatham Mahadevan, an Indian linguist now retired in Chennai, India, more than one-fourth of all signs appear only once, and more than half show up five times or fewer. Rarely used signs likely would not encode sound, says Farmer. It is as if many symbols “were invented on the fly, only to be abandoned after being used once or a handful of times,” he, Witzel, and Sproat write.

    Short and sweet.

    Most Indus inscriptions are short.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE HARAPPA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROJECT/PHOTOS BY R. H. MEADOW

    Farmer believes that the symbols have nonlinguistic meaning. He speculates that the signs may have been considered magical—as the Christian cross can be—and indicated individuals or clans, cities or professions, or gods. He and his colleagues compare the Indus script to inscriptions found in prehistoric southeastern Europe around 4000 B.C.E., where the VinGraphica culture produced an array of symbols often displayed in a linear form, including a handful used frequently.

    But these conclusions are not accepted by key archaeologists and linguists who have spent their careers digging at Harappa or trying to decipher the symbols. “Regularities in the frequency and distribution of signs are possible only in a linguistic script,” says Mahadevan. Wells is more blunt. “He is utterly wrong,” he says of Farmer. “There is something you recognize as an epigrapher immediately, such as long linear patterns.”

    As to the brevity of inscriptions, Wells says averages can be misleading. The longer Indus inscriptions, he says, can't be explained as magical symbols. VinGraphica symbols, for example, rarely are grouped in numbers greater than five. “And you don't get repetitive ordering” as with Indus signs, he adds. “The Indus script is a highly patterned, highly ordered system with a syntax—it just looks too much like writing.” Wells also says that a mere 30 signs are used only once, rather than the 1000 Farmer postulates, because many of the “singletons” transform into compound signs used repeatedly.

    Parpola agrees that the pattern of symbols argues for an organized script. “There are a limited number of standardized signs, some repeated hundreds of times—with the same shape, recurring combinations, and regular lines,” he says. But Wells and Parpola, like most linguists in the field, agree on little beyond their opposition to Farmer. Wells rejects Parpola's method of deciphering the signs, and Parpola dismisses Wells's contention that there are significant differences between the signs of upper and lower Indus.

    Wells and some other scholars believe that the attraction of Farmer's idea has less to do with science than with the long history of decipherment failures. “Some have turned to this idea that it is not writing out of frustration,” he says.

    Sign or script?

    Farmer says Indus seals (left), like VinGraphica signs (right) are not writing.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE HARAPPA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROJECT/PHOTOS BY R. H. MEADOW

    But many others are convinced that Farmer, Witzel, and Sproat have found a way to move away from sterile discussions of decipherment, and they find few flaws in their arguments. “They have settled the issue for me,” says George Thompson, a Sanskrit scholar at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts. “We have the work of a comparative historian, a computational linguist, and a Vedicist,” he adds. “Together they have changed the landscape regarding the whole question.” In a forthcoming book on South Asian linguistic archaeology, Frank Southworth of the University of Pennsylvania calls the paper an “unexpected solution” to the old troubles with decipherment.

    Meanwhile, Farmer is injecting a bit of fun into the melee. “Find us just one inscription with 50 symbols on it, in repeating symbols in the kinds of quasi-random patterns associated with true scripts, and we'll consider our model falsified,” he wrote on a listserve devoted to the Indus. And he is putting his money—or, rather, that of a donor he won't reveal—where his mouth is, promising the winner $10,000. The orthodox dismiss the prize as grandstanding, whereas Farmer boasts that “no one is ever going to collect that money.”

    Retrenching

    Each side clearly has far to go to convince its opponents. “I'm not sure the case is strong enough on either side,” says linguist Hans Hock of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Let each side of the controversy make their case.”

    Yet there already is a retreat from earlier claims that the Indus symbols represent a full-blown writing system and that they encoded speech. Many scholars such as Possehl now acknowledge that the signs likely are dominated by names of places, people, clans, plants, and gods rather than by the narratives found in ancient Sumer or Egypt. They say the script may be more similar to the first stages of writing in those lands. Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky says the meanings of the Indus signs likely are “impenetrable and imponderable” and adds that whether or not the signs are considered writing, they clearly are a form of communication—and that is what really counts. Recent research in Central and South America has highlighted how complex societies prospered without traditional writing, such as the knotted strings or khipu of the vast Incan empire (Science, 2 July, p. 30).

    Literacy promoter.

    J. Mark Kenoyer, on the dig at Harappa, thinks Indus signs are script.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE HARAPPA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROJECT/PHOTOS BY R. H. MEADOW

    Farmer adds that a society does not need to be literate to be complex. “A big, urban civilization can be held together without writing,” he says. He and his co-authors suggest that the Indus likely had many tongues and was a rich mix of ethnicities like India today. Wells has found marked differences between signs in the upper and lower Indus River regions, backing up the theory of a more diverse society. But some, such as D. P. Agrawal, an independent archaeologist based in Almora, India, doubt that a civilization spread over more than 1 million square kilometers, and with uniform weights, measures, and developed trade, could manage its affairs without a script.

    This debate over Indus literacy has political as well as academic consequences. “This will be seen as an attack on the greatness of Indian civilization—which would be unfortunate,” says Shereen Ratnagar, a retired archaeologist who taught at Delhi's Nehru University. Tension is already high between some Western and Indian scholars and Indian nationalists. “Indologists are at war with the Hindutva polemicists,” says statistical linguist Lars Martin Fosse of the University of Oslo, and the issue of the script “is extremely sensitive.” Farmer says he regularly receives e-mail viruses and death threats from Indian nationalists who oppose his views.

    For decades, Indus researchers have tended to stick with their established positions, as on the script, a tendency that has kept the field from moving forward, says one archaeologist who compares the small cadre of Indus scholars to a “dysfunctional family” with a proclivity for secrecy, ideological positions, and intolerance. Meadow is among those who argue that it is time to set aside old ideas, no matter how much time and effort has been invested in them, in order to push the field forward. “We're here to do science, and it is always valuable to have new models,” he says. Adds Ratnagar: “We must get back to an open mind.” Given the strong emotions swirling around the Indus symbols, discovering the key to that open mind may prove the hardest code to break.

  18. ARCHAEOLOGY

    Splendid Sewers, But Little Sculpture

    1. Andrew Lawler

    British explorers stumbled on Indus ruins and artifacts in the late 1870s, but it was not until the 1920s that excavations revealed the geographically largest ancient urban civilization of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Digs at sites such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan revealed sprawling cities; Harappa may have been home to 50,000 people in its heyday between 2500 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E. Standardized bricks and weights were used in towns and cities more than 1000 kilometers from the civilization's center along the Indus River, and wheeled carts were widespread. The sanitation systems, including extensive wells and underground pipes, were of a sophistication not seen again until 2000 years later in ancient Rome.

    Digging for answers.

    Excavations at Harappa have yielded new insights.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE HARAPPA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROJECT/PHOTOS BY R. H. MEADOW

    The Indus seemed to resemble closely the complexity of riverine societies like those of Egypt and Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium B.C.E., and the three civilizations apparently had contact. Carnelian and lapis lazuli from the West Asian region made its way to Egypt, and Indus stamp seals have been found in Mesopotamia.

    Yet in other ways, the Indus stands alone. It lacks monumental buildings, obvious religious shrines, large defensive fortifications, clear social stratification, and three-dimensional sculpture—all crucial elements of contemporaneous Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture. And, strangely, no Egyptian or Mesopotamian artifacts have been found in the Indus region. The Indus seems isolated and insulated until the turn of the millennium, when the strong influence of cultures to the immediate west became noticeable. By 1700 B.C.E., most traces of Indus material culture vanish suddenly, for no obvious reason and leaving no clear cultural heirs. “For a long time, people thought the Indus was so enigmatic, so unique, that there was no point in comparisons because none of them fit,” says Rita Wright, a New York University archaeologist who has worked at Harappa.

    CREDIT: K. BUCKHEIT/SCIENCE

    That view of the Indus as odd has begun to fade with the most recent series of digs in the ancient city of Harappa, which halted after the events of 9/11. There, and at several sites in India, archaeologists have found evidence of walled neighborhoods suggesting clannish rivalries or outside threats, jewelry of different quality suggesting social distinctions, and civic structures. New digs within India have uncovered evidence of a more vibrant system of trading over long distances. Those finds hint at a society not so radically different from its contemporaries, says Wright. In that light, a thesis highlighting the oddity of the Indus symbols (see main text) feels like a backward step, she adds.

    Unraveling the contradictions of the Indus civilization will require more data—data that are buried in the mostly unpublished notes of the Harappa team and their Indian colleagues, at sites along the tense India-Pakistan border, and in tribal areas closed now to scientists. The Indus seems destined to confound archaeologists for decades to come.

  19. ARCHAEOLOGY

    Outsider Revels in Breaking Academic Taboos

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Steve Farmer describes himself as “the ultimate collaborationist,” but he has a way of making enemies. When he showed up at a 2002 Harvard University gathering to propose that the Indus script is no script at all, participants recall that his ideas were greeted with shouts of derision. And his positions on the role of the Indus civilization in Indian history have earned him a place in the demonology of Indian nationalists.

    Yet despite what many call an abrasive personality, this former street kid from Chicago, who lacks a high school diploma, has shaken up the closed field of Indus studies (see main text). “It is healthy the way this is turning things upside down,” says archaeologist Steven Weber of Washington State University in Vancouver.

    Farmer's linguistic ability got him off the streets when he joined the Army in the 1960s. After learning Russian at the military's language school in Monterey, California, he worked for the National Security Agency listening in on the conversations of Soviet pilots. Then, radicalized by the Vietnam War, he left the military for academia. After winning a high school equivalency diploma, he studied history at the University of Maryland, College Park, and earned a Ph.D. in comparative cultural history at Stanford University in California. He taught history of science and European history at George Mason University outside Washington, D.C., and then moved to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge as a tenure-track professor. But he says he rejected full-time academic life to avoid teaching courses he found boring and moved back to California, where he was on the adjunct faculty at Ohlone College in Fremont until 1997. To support his scholarly pursuits, Farmer has edited a journal on narcolepsy, worked on a PGA golf tournament training program, and helped develop a device to aid people with brain disorders.

    Indus iconoclast.

    Steve Farmer holds a replica of the longest Indus inscription.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF S. FARMER

    In 1999, after putting together a model of cross-cultural frameworks for premodern history using ancient China as an example, he turned his attention to India. “I didn't know anything about this stuff,” he says. “I was the naïve outsider too dumb not to recognize the field's taboos.” But he was struck by the brevity of Indus inscriptions and unconvinced by the many efforts to decipher the symbols. He didn't hesitate to poke fun at Indian nationalists who attempted their own decipherments and who promulgated theories connecting the Indus to Hindu culture. “I still get death threats daily,” he says. “And I'm careful about opening packages from India.” He also was irritated by what he calls archaeologists' proclivity to “hoard data.”

    “He can be abrasive and aggressive, and many in the field find him presumptuous,” says linguist George Thompson of Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts. At the 2002 Harvard meeting, a few of the academics present hooted Farmer off the stage. “People were literally screaming,” Farmer recalls. Nonetheless, his arguments ultimately impressed Harvard anthropologist Richard Meadow, who granted him access to unpublished Harappa data. “Steve stepped in and did an enormous amount of work” on the Harappa data, says Thompson.

    His arrogance makes him hard for some scholars to get along with. “I've remade the field,” he recently boasted. Others resent his methods. “He uses verbose arguments,” says archaeologist J. Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, co-director of the Harappa dig. “And he's not basing it on science.” Adds linguist Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, “I don't think his ideas are interesting or viable, and I'm surprised they have raised interest.” At this point, however, that interest is undeniable, so Indus specialists are making room, albeit reluctantly, for a new member of their small family. But the intellectually peripatetic Farmer insists he will not make himself at home: “This is just a chapter in my book.”

  20. RICHARD VILLEMS PROFILE

    Cutting a Path in Genetics and International Diplomacy

    1. John Bohannon*
    1. John Bohannon is a writer based in Berlin.

    The newly elected president of the Estonian Academy of Sciences has long been a scientist-diplomat, first in dealings with the Soviet Union, now with the European Union

    TARTU, ESTONIA—Rather than take the long route to the entrance of his building, Richard Villems leads a visitor through the trees at the back door. “The student way,” he says, hopping over a ripped section of the metal fence. At 60, the silver-haired geneticist seems to have lost none of his agility. Known for his research on early human migrations, which is currently challenging some long-held views of the peopling of the world, Villems has played another, public role as well—helping build a research infrastructure in his native Estonia and lending vigor to an academic world that was until recently beholden to bureaucrats in Moscow.

    Villems, who was elected president of the Estonian Academy of Sciences last month, nods at a squat concrete building: “That's where I lived for 4 years when I was a medical student,” he says with a smile. Back then, “you had to be careful what you said,” because people could be expelled from the university or even arrested for politically incorrect behavior.

    Things have changed here. This could be the campus of an Ivy League university in New England. Graduate students amble along the wet stone paths carpeted by autumn leaves, carrying on discussions in half a dozen languages. Villems chats among them casually and puffs on his ever-present pipe. And like a well- established Ivy League professor, Villems excuses himself to deal with the paperwork for several multimillion-dollar research grants.

    Russian soldiers pulled out of Estonia only 10 years ago; the nation quickly reoriented itself toward the West and was granted membership in the European Union (E.U.) just this May. While most other former communist central and eastern European nations are struggling with poverty and a drain of expertise to richer neighbors, Estonia has emerged from the former Soviet Union's dominion as an economic and academic success story.

    Unusual among the new democracies, Estonia's transformation has been spearheaded in large part by its scientists, says Ene Ergma, an astrophysicist who is now the leading politician in the Estonian parliament. She credits Villems as a “science diplomat,” helping turn Estonia into a budding scientific powerhouse. Villems's influence is bound to grow.

    Follow the DNA

    The Estonians enjoyed a “special status” that allowed a somewhat more relaxed intellectual life than that of others within the Soviet empire, says Villems. One reason, he says, is that the Estonians have always been a breed apart. Their language, like Finnish and Hungarian, comes from a root unrelated to the languages spoken in the rest of Europe. Along with their linguistic oddity comes the riddle of their genetic origins. The prevailing theory once held that the Estonians arrived in a single migration from the Ural mountains in Siberia, but it has been supplanted in the last decade by a more complex theory that the population is a mix of tribes that migrated from several directions.

    Villems began to puzzle over this question in the late 1980s. His new passion was opportune. Techniques were just emerging that allow researchers to reconstruct the human family tree using DNA sequences, tracing the split and migration of different populations right back to the appearance of Homo sapiens in Africa more than 100,000 years ago. And Villems had by then gained the prestige and independence to choose and pursue his own project.

    Villems had been a rising star among Soviet molecular biologists. In the 1970s he was one of the chosen few allowed to do research in the West, first as a postdoc at Uppsala University in Sweden and then at the University of Edinburgh, U.K. After these experiences, Villems resolved to help bring Estonian science up to speed. The laboratory resources available at the time were “quite minimal,” he says. So in 1984, armed with nothing more than a 13-page argument for increasing funding for modern molecular biology, he sidestepped the bureaucratic hierarchy and went straight to the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers in Moscow, the body with final say over the distribution of research funding within the Soviet Union.

    Mover and shaker.

    Villems's research on the peopling of Estonia has led to a new view of early human migration.

    CREDITS (LEFT TO RIGHT): COURTESY OF R. VILLEMS; K. BUCKHEIT/SCIENCE

    “That was a brilliant act of diplomacy,” recalls Jaak Järv, a chemist at the University of Tartu. “Almost no one knew how to deal with such a huge bureaucracy,” but Villems pulled it off. The committee rewarded the upstart Estonian with the equivalent of a $9 million grant to create a molecular biology institute on the campus in Tartu, now called the Estonian Biocenter. This was “more than the total that all Estonian scientists had ever received in grants,” says Villems. That sum has since been multiplied many times over by private donors and research charities wooed by Villems and others, particularly after the E.U. designated the Biocenter as one of its 34 “Centers of Excellence” in 1999.

    Armed with the modern tools of biology, Villems attempted to trace Estonians' origins through the DNA of the mitochondria, which is passed down from mother to child, and the Y chromosome, which passes from father to son. In principle, by comparing the mutations that accumulate in these gender-linked indexes, the age and origin of modern populations can be worked out. It's well established, for example, that all modern humans trace their parentage to a female line that emerged from Africa more than 100,000 years ago. But sorting out individual European populations is a big challenge. There has been so much mixing among the original tribes over history, says Villems, that “to get the real answers you have to go deeper in time, farther out in the context” than the peopling of just Europe.

    Sleuthing the Y-chromosomal DNA of Estonians, for example, seems to lead back to ancient populations from Borneo and the Sunda Islands that spread up to eastern Siberia before the last Ice Age. But if this turns out to be true, says Villems, “it will be beyond any present-day ‘standard scenario’ of gene flow over the past 20,000 years.” Getting the answers is only possible by placing Estonians within “the big picture.” And to piece together that picture, Villems has amassed an “amazing” collection of European and Asian DNA samples, says Thomas Gilbert, a British molecular anthropologist now at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has collaborated with Villems.

    According to what Villems calls the “Tartu school,” the emerging picture differs from the mainstream view. Villems, along with his research group, particularly Toomas Kivisild, has been publishing research indicating that Homo sapiens migrated from Africa to India and “incubated” there about 60,000 years ago before spreading out to people the rest of the world. The theory “is completely their own,” says Peter Forster, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, U.K., and “it has been gaining a surprising amount of acceptance.” Forster says it would force a major revision of the field if it bears out.

    Championing science

    Soon after the Soviet Union crumbled, Villems became a scientist-diplomat for his country, first by negotiating Estonia's early entry into the E.U.'s research funding scheme. Ergma believes that this “gave us a head start” over the other former Soviet states. Now Estonia boasts one of the best Internet networks in Europe as well as a small but fast-growing high-tech industry.

    At the top of Villems's to-do list at the Estonian Academy of Sciences, which holds sway over the government's science policies, is “to secure our place in the European Research Area.” His experiences in Moscow were excellent preparation. In a flashback to the days when Estonian scientists had to fight for a piece of the pie within the Soviet Union, their focus is now on Brussels, where the E.U.'s $22 billion scientific budget is divvied up among its 25 member states. Ergma agrees that winning this external funding is crucial. “Although Estonian salaries are low, so is the cost of living,” she says. “But a centrifuge or a computer is just as expensive as elsewhere. So we desperately need structural grants.”

    A necessary step for Estonia to remain competitive, as Villems sees it, is to reduce what he calls the “mediocracy” in his country's science. Sounding like a draconian thesis adviser, he says that after years of Soviet exploitation, “some Estonian researchers have a sense of entitlement, that they should be funded without having to do excellent work.” He plans to make sure that Estonian research institutions and projects are assessed by peer-review from outside the country.

    Villems says another major problem to be tackled is Estonia's “missing generation” of scientists. The academy estimates that about 1000 students stampeded away from science into more lucrative fields such as business shortly after Estonia's independence. To achieve what Villems calls “critical mass” among the ranks, science education will be getting a boost to attract the first generation of Estonians who never knew communism. And an equally important strategy, says Villems, is to offer start-up grants to lure successful Estonian researchers back home after doing postdocs abroad.

    Villems has his work cut out for him. Entering his office is like plunging into a cave made of paper: Books line every wall, and piles of articles cover every surface. Squeezing into the chair at his computer like a pilot climbing into a cockpit, Villems chuckles at the chaos around him: “I don't mind it.”

  21. ACADEMIC CAREERS

    Family Matters: Stopping Tenure Clock May Not Be Enough

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    University policies aimed at giving women time to have a family and a career are no match for the pressure to publish

    As a rare woman faculty member at Stanford Medical School in the late 1970s, neurobiologist Carla Shatz put her quest for tenure ahead of her desire to start a family. But as she toiled away in the lab, working on a range of problems in developmental biology, her biological clock was ticking faster than she realized. By the time she earned tenure in her late 30s, her reproductive years had passed. “For 4 years, I tried every fertility treatment that was available,” says Shatz, now 57 and a professor at Harvard University. “Nothing helped.” The disappointment, she says, contributed to the breakup of her marriage.

    In the past decade, dozens of universities have changed their tenure policies to accommodate the family needs of their faculty members. They've adopted rules that provide time off from tenure-track positions, created part-time tenure slots, and spread the gospel about the need to make room for family choices in the climb up the academic ladder. But those changes aren't making much of a dent in the cultural norms that put a premium on productivity, especially at the start of an academic career. Last month, at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, two researchers who surveyed women faculty members around the country on their attitudes toward extended tenure summed up the problem in the title of their talk: Fear Factor.

    “Simply having a policy in the faculty handbook is not enough,” says Lisa Wolfwendel of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, who presented the data with her colleague, Kelly Ward of Washington State University in Pullman. Although the fear that a tenure extension could hurt their career “could be unfounded,” she says, “it is a fear nonetheless.”

    That fear, Wolfwendel says, is rooted in the idea that women who use such policies are somehow asking for special treatment. For many women of Schatz's generation, going off the clock wasn't a viable option. “Doing science and having children were considered mutually exclusive,” says Shatz. And despite their growing presence in the sciences—women now earn 37% of U.S. Ph.D.s, up from 14% 30 years ago—many women who enter academia say they are still looking over their shoulders as they climb the career ladder.

    Two for one.

    Dawn Lehman and Marc Eberhard, husband-and-wife civil engineers at the University of Washington, say that sharing one faculty slot has eased the pressure on childcare.

    CREDIT: COURTESLY OF MARC EBERHARD AND DAWN LEHMAN

    Two recent surveys at major research institutions point to the bind women faculty members face. Some 42% of women at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for example, didn't request to go off the tenure clock even though they had reason to do so, and two-thirds of them said it was because of fear that an extension would have an adverse impact on their careers. “Had I stopped the tenure clock, I would have been viewed as weak by my senior colleagues,” one faculty member wrote in her response, says study co-author Jean Waltman.

    Women will go to great lengths to avoid that label, notes Waltman. Some reported that they had delayed pregnancy until after they got tenure. The survey also found that about one-third of the 86 women who had children did not request a lighter teaching load after giving birth.

    A survey this fall at the nine University of California (UC) campuses found similar attitudes toward the school's tenure- extension policies. Although 48 women reported using it, 41 did not—most out of fear that it might derail their careers. Women who put their careers on hold, says one of the authors, UC Berkeley's Marc Goulden, must battle “the cultural conception that the faster you are, the better you are, particularly in the sciences. The expectation is that all the good people come up for tenure in 5 or 6 years, so God forbid if you take 7 or 8.”

    There are scant data on whether stopping the clock actually hurts a faculty member's chance of receiving tenure. Patricia Hyer, associate provost of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says that none of the 10 women who have taken extensions for childbirth or other family-related reasons at her university since 1997 have been denied tenure. Lynn Singer, a psychologist and vice provost at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, recalls having to admonish one tenure committee that had looked askance at the publication record of a candidate who had taken an extension. “I had to remind the committee that they needed to judge her productivity on the basis of her time on the clock,” says Singer, adding that the woman was awarded tenure.

    Even when the departmental climate is favorable, however, many women opt to defer pregnancy until after receiving tenure for fear of losing research momentum. “Many scientists worry that grant reviewers will note the gap in productivity and go ‘Oh, this person took a year's break, they aren't really serious,’” says a biologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), who requested anonymity. Her own lighthearted attempt at addressing the issue, she says, has been “to insert my child's name and birth date in the chronological order of publications.”

    The UIC biologist also recommends that National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant applicants explain interruptions in their research. But biochemist Elvira Ehrenfeld, former director of NIH's Center for Scientific Review now back in the lab, is skeptical that such information would clarify matters—and it could even backfire. “Let's imagine an application to which one reviewer says, ‘My enthusiasm was tempered when I saw that the researcher hasn't published anything in the past 2 years.’ Then somebody else points out that the applicant started a family in those years,” she says. “The scientific review administrator could then raise a very valid question: Do we give extra points to another applicant who had a baby but didn't stop publishing?”

    CREDIT: L. CREVELING/SCIENCE

    Funding agencies could provide some critical help in child rearing, says Laurie Glimcher, an immunology professor at Harvard University. Glimcher, who remembers her struggle 2 decades ago to cope with child-care responsibilities as an NIH postdoc, recently lobbied successfully for a program at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to help scientists with early parenting. The $500,000 pilot program, announced in July, will enable principal investigators (PIs) to hire a technician for up to 2 years to assist a postdoc in their lab who has primary caregiving responsibilities. “We plan to make between eight and 10 awards,” says Milton Hernandez, director of NIAID's Office of Special Populations and Research Training, who expects other NIH institutes to adopt the program.

    And that's just a start, says Robert Drago, a labor economist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who studies bias against caregiving in the workplace: “From providing affordable housing near campus to subsidizing daycare, there's a lot that institutions should be doing if they mean business.”

    A few universities have reexamined how they do business, restructuring the tenure process to allow part-time tenure-track positions. The option has worked well for Dawn Lehman and Marc Eberhard, civil engineers who negotiated an arrangement 6 years ago with the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, to help the two balance career and family. A tenured faculty member, Eberhard offered to work half-time so that UW could create a half-time tenure-track slot for Lehman, who had just graduated from UC Berkeley. The department agreed. The arrangement enabled the couple to start a family and spend more than 30 hours of the workweek with their daughter, Collette, now 3. (They had a second child this fall.) Eberhard, who's Swiss-born, says the extra time off gives him a chance to teach his daughter French.

    But splitting a job may not be enough for some young scientists. One 32-year-old postdoctoral fellow in physiology at a major research university in the Northwest has decided to pursue a non-tenure-track job in academia so that she and her husband can begin a family. “I've been quietly observing the senior women in my field since graduate school,” she says. “I don't see balance; I don't see much of a family life.” Instead, she says about her PI, a divorced mother, “I see her at work all the time. I don't think I want to make that kind of sacrifice.”

    Shatz says the community must figure out how to meet the needs of the next generation of scientists if academic research is to remain an attractive career. “People have very different career and personal paths, and we need to be more creative in offering options,” she says. “We cannot continue a culture where women are reluctant to have children during their most fertile years.”

  22. MATERIALS RESEARCH SOCIETY MEETING

    Organic Solar Cells Playing Catch-Up

    1. Robert F. Service

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Chemists, physicists, and materials scientists met here from 29 November through 3 December to talk about progress on everything from improved solar cells to engineering proteins.

    Electronics researchers have made heady progress in recent years in turning organic materials into light emitters and computer logic circuitry. But their dream of matching these advances with novel organic solar cells that are cheap and easy to make has been stymied by their low rates in converting sunlight to electricity. At the meeting, however, Stephen Forrest of Princeton University and his student Jiangeng Xu shined a new ray of hope for the future of organic solar cells by boosting their efficiency from a few percent to 6%.

    “That's a very important development,” says Ching Tang, a physical chemist at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, whose team developed the first organic-based solar cell in 1986. Still, experts say that efficiency rates for organics will likely have to top 10% to have a shot at cracking the solar cell market.

    Still champion.

    Solar cells made from crystalline inorganic materials still dominate the marketplace.

    CREDIT: ROSENFELD IMAGES LTD./PHOTO RESEARCHERS

    Just getting to 6% was hard enough. Among the biggest problems was a Catch-22 involving the materials' poor absorption properties. To give the cells a better crack at grabbing incoming photons from the sun, researchers would like to lay photon-absorbing organics down in a thick layer. But if the layer is too thick, the absorbed photons generate heat before they can be converted into electricity. Once a photon is absorbed, it creates a particle known as an exciton—essentially just an excited electron bound to its opposite, a positively charged electron vacancy, or “hole.” To generate electricity, these excitons must find their way to a material boundary that is energetically tuned to split them into their opposite charges, which then must find their way to oppositely charged electrodes. Unfortunately, excitons typically travel only short distances before their component electrons and holes recombine and give off their excess energy as heat.

    Forrest's group applied a multipronged solution to this and other problems. They started with layers of different photon-absorbing materials—a combination of copper phthalocyanine and carbon-60, tuned to allow excitons to travel as far as possible before recombining. Second, to increase the odds of separating the excitons' charges, they created an interface that increased the surface area between the absorbing materials and other organic layers designed to whisk the electrons and holes toward opposite electrodes. Next, because the intensity of light in the cell is highest about 100 nanometers from the negatively charged electrode, the researchers tweaked the spacing between that electrode and the photon-absorbing layer to ensure that the light's peak intensity would land in the sweet spot of the photon-absorbing material. Finally, Forrest's team stacked solar cells atop one another so that even if the first cell didn't absorb all the incoming light, the other cells would finish the job.

    On the rise.

    The efficiency of organic solar cells is approaching that of amorphous silicon.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM C. WRONSKI

    The resulting structure, which also appears in the 6 December Applied Physics Letters, led to a dramatic boost in efficiency. That efficiency is still too low for organic solar cells to make it to market, Tang says, but Forrest has plans for boosting it further by adding antireflective coatings to prevent light from bouncing off the device, among other things. Organic solar cell makers must also prove that their devices can withstand prolonged exposure to searing rooftop temperatures and rain, snow, ice, and wind. Still, says Tang, to get efficiencies as high as 6%, “you have to get everything right.”

  23. MATERIALS RESEARCH SOCIETY MEETING

    Can Organics Take On Flash Memory?

    1. Robert F. Service

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Chemists, physicists, and materials scientists met here from 29 November through 3 December to talk about progress on everything from improved solar cells to engineering proteins.

    Improved solar cells aren't the only new devices on the horizon for organic materials. At the meeting, two separate California-based teams reported progress in turning organics into high-density, low-cost memory technology by using gold nanoparticles suspended in a simple polymer matrix. The new results are “a good first step,” says Dimitris Tsoukalas, a physicist at the National Technical University of Athens in Greece, an expert on organic electronic materials. Polymer-nanocrystal memories, Tsoukalas says, have the potential to be cheap because they are much simpler to manufacture than silicon chips. They could also pack bits at a high density because organic memory cells should be easy to stack—unlike silicon devices. But Tsoukalas cautions that polymer-nanocrystal memories have a long way to go before they one-up today's silicon technologies, commonly known as flash memory.

    In that technology, engineers grow specialized circuits, each of which contains two side-by-side silicon transistors. When electrons are sent through the first transistor (called the control gate), they push electrons onto the second (called the floating gate). That electron surge creates a digital “1” or “0” that can be preserved for years, read out, or rewritten by applying another electrical voltage. The reading and writing process, however, is slow, and the density of such memory cells is limited by the technology used to pattern them, which many experts see hitting a wall sometime after 2010.

    To a T.

    Applying different voltages alters conductivity of organic material (red and green).

    CREDIT: Y. YANG/NATURE MATERIALS 3, 918–922 (2004)

    So far organic materials haven't had much to offer as potential successor technologies. At the meeting, however, the two groups—one led by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), materials scientist Yang Yang, and the other by Luisa Dominica Bozano of IBM's Almaden Research Center—reported that polymer-nanocrystal memory devices are easy to make, fast, and potentially high density. The devices consist of a simple sandwich of metal electrodes above and below a thin polymer film of polystyrene mixed with gold nanoparticles. The UCLA group—whose results also appear in the current issue of Nature Materials—also mixed in another electron-ferrying organic compound called 8-hydroxyquinoline (8HQ).

    When a “write” voltage of about 3 volts is applied to the device, electrons hop from the 8HQ molecules and onto the gold nanocrystals. Once the electrons arrive, they increase the conductivity of the polymer layer when a lower “read” voltage is applied because they make it easier for the electrons to hopscotch between the electrodes. The IBM group used much the same strategy but tested dozens of different combinations of the polymers, nanocrystals, and electrodes.

    The next step for researchers, says Yang, is to demonstrate that polymer memories are long lived and robust. If they can manage that, the computer memory field may soon find itself with some new competition.

  24. MATERIALS RESEARCH SOCIETY MEETING

    Protein Engineers Go for Gold

    1. Robert F. Service

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Chemists, physicists, and materials scientists met here from 29 November through 3 December to talk about progress on everything from improved solar cells to engineering proteins.

    Proteins have become biochemists' favorite Christmas tree, perfect for decorating with all kinds of molecular ornaments. In recent years, teams around the globe have induced the cell's protein factories, called ribosomes, to append protein chains with novel amino acids and other organic groups. Now researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Texas (UT), Austin, have managed to get ribosomes to decorate proteins with inorganic gold nanoparticles as well. The development could open the door to new tests of the construction abilities of ribosomes, as well as novel ways to image proteins.

    “It sounds pretty cool,” says Steven Benner, a biochemist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, whose lab has pioneered “synthetic biology” techniques to expand the genetic alphabet in hopes of synthesizing novel proteins. Benner notes that gold particles tend to show up well with high-resolution imaging techniques, such as transmission electron microscopy. That could make the tiny gold tags useful for nailing down the structure of proteins, such as those imbedded in cell membranes, that are difficult to image with conventional protein-imaging techniques such as x-ray crystallography. And studding proteins with different-sized nanoparticles should give researchers a new way to investigate basic questions about the ribosome, such as how large a particle these factories can work with.

    The new work builds on earlier experiments in which chemist Angela Belcher and colleagues at UT evolved bacterial proteins capable of binding different types of inorganic nanoparticles (Science, 24 December 1999, p. 2442). But the technique couldn't control exactly where on the proteins the nanoparticles ended up. At the meeting, Belcher's student Ioana Pavel reported that they had solved the problem, thanks to considerable help from ribosomes. These protein-building factories read the nucleic acid code of messenger RNA (mRNA), which itself is translated from DNA, and follow the instructions to assemble amino acids in their programmed sequence. In this process, known as translation, mRNA's instructions appear as a string of three-letter words called codons. In the ribosome, another set of RNA molecules called transfer RNAs (tRNAs)—which have mRNA-reading “anticodons” on one end and carry the corresponding amino acid on the other end—translate these codons into the specific amino acids that the ribosome then knits together.

    Transfer RNAs, however, don't normally add inorganic nanoparticles to proteins. So Belcher, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in conjunction with biochemist Karen Browning's lab at UT, decided to make their own tRNAs that could do the job. They took advantage of the fact that the amino acid cysteine harbors a reactive sulfhydryl group, which has a strong affinity for gold. They started by using standard molecular biology techniques to generate large amounts of tRNA loaded with the cysteine. They then reacted the cysteine tRNA with the gold nanoparticles in a way that added a single gold particle to each cysteine. Next, they prepared an extract from Escherichia coli that contained ribosomes as well as all the other protein-building biomolecules needed except cysteine tRNAs. They then added their gold-tagged cysteine tRNAs to the soup. Finally, they added the mRNA that coded for a protein known as green fluorescent protein, which normally contains two cysteines in its protein chain. And as the ribosomes knit copies of the protein together, they added the gold-tagged cysteines, decorating each protein with two nanoparticles, a result that showed up clearly in subsequent imaging tests.

    Down the road, Benner and others say that such inorganic tags could provide imaging signposts that would tell them exactly how far apart the nanoparticles wind up when they are incorporated into proteins—potentially critical information for working out the structures of highly complex proteins. If so, that would be a welcome gift to many structural biologists.

  25. MATERIALS RESEARCH SOCIETY MEETING

    Snapshots From the Meeting

    1. Robert F. Service

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Chemists, physicists, and materials scientists met here from 29 November through 3 December to talk about progress on everything from improved solar cells to engineering proteins.

    Crime Busters. Law enforcement agencies have long dreamed of using semiconductor terahertz lasers to hunt down weapons because the beams readily penetrate clothing and other materials. Progress has picked up in recent years, as researchers have made the first semiconductor terahertz lasers. Unfortunately, these operate at hard-to-achieve ultralow temperatures. At the meeting, researchers from Sandia National Lab reported a semiconductor “quantum cascade” terahertz laser that operates at 137 kelvin, the highest temperature yet, a key step on the road to room-temperature operation.

    Crime Busters, the Sequel. Computer hard disks store and retrieve data by using tiny devices that convert magnetic fields into electrical signals. Now researchers at Stanford University are trying to use the same devices to detect molecules. The researchers attached magnetic beads to snippets of single-stranded DNA. They then showed that they could detect a change in the magnetic signal when these snippets bound to their DNA partner strands. Such devices could revolutionize police work by making it possible to instantly identify DNA at a crime scene.

    Improving water purification. A mere 0.5% of the water on Earth is both fresh and accessible. So better membranes to filter out pathogens, toxins, salt, and other contaminants in water could help quench the planet's thirst. Researchers at MIT presented one new approach: two-part polymer films, with hydrophobic groups that lend stability and hydrophilic portions that create a regular array of tiny holes for filtration. The result is a membrane that allows more water to flow through.

  26. Earthquake Preparedness: Some Countries Are Betting That A Few Seconds Can Save Lives

    1. Dennis Normile

    Japan, Mexico, and Taiwan are investing in early warning systems that can offer precious seconds of warning before a major tremor

    TOKYO—What would you do with 5 to 50 seconds' warning of a major earthquake?

    It's not an academic question. Systems that can detect earthquakes near their source and issue warnings before the shaking starts are in place or being deployed in Mexico, Taiwan, and Japan and are being studied for locales from southern California to Istanbul. Enthusiasts are convinced that short-term warnings can save lives by stopping trains before they pass over damaged track, emptying out elevators, and alerting rescue units. “It is an epochmaking” advance in earthquake safety, says Masato Motosaka, a Japanese earthquake engineer at Tohoku University in Sendai.

    Not everyone agrees, however. Skeptics note that warning systems don't provide enough time to reduce casualties close to the epicenter of an earthquake. They also worry that such systems could divert spending from earthquake preparedness, which they say has the potential to do much greater good. “Warnings only help in some cases,” says Robert Olshansky, an urban planner at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Investing too much of one's money and hopes in a short-term warning system is a distraction from the hard and less sexy work, such as upgrading older structures, that is really needed to improve seismic safety.”

    Faster than a speeding S wave

    Early warning systems are not forecasts. Instead, they detect actual quakes near their source and issue warnings to automated systems and humans up to several hundred kilometers away. They work because electronic signals transmitted through wires or air travel faster than seismic waves moving through the earth. Warning schemes also take advantage of the two types of seismic waves that are generated when a fault ruptures. The first—and faster moving—primary (P) waves radiate directly outward from the epicenter. The secondary (S) waves, which cause the oscillating motions responsible for the most damage, lag by tens of seconds over a distance of a few hundred kilometers. “The P waves carry information; the S waves carry energy,” explains Hiroo Kanamori, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. Unfortunately, P waves and S waves would arrive almost simultaneously near the epicenter, making warning impossible where shaking is most intense.

    Figure
    To a T.

    Applying different voltages alters conductivity of organic material (red and green).

    CREDIT: Y. YANG/NATURE MATERIALS 3, 918–922 (2004)

    Farther away from the epicenter, there is time to analyze the signals and automatically generate warnings. After the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) deployed a temporary array of three seismometers that warned workers demolishing a collapsed highway viaduct in Oakland about aftershocks. The system gave workers 23 seconds' notice of S waves from 12 aftershocks stronger than magnitude 3.7.

    Two permanent early warning systems were put in place in the early 1990s in Mexico and Japan. In 1991 the Centro de Instrumentacion y Registro Sismico (CIRES), a private Mexican nonprofit organization, set up a network of 12 instruments along the country's Pacific coast near Acapulco, where seismologists think a magnitude 8 earthquake is overdue. If the system works as intended, residents of the capital city, 280 km away, could get 70 seconds' warning. Schools and some government offices are serviced by dedicated transmission lines, and citizens have access to automated radio broadcasts. Two years ago, a similar system was set up for the city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

    Likewise in Japan, the country's early warning systems are likely to prove most useful for the most devastating earthquakes, those that occur off the Pacific coast where the North American plate is being forced under the Philippine plate. For example, Motosaka says that the Sendai area would receive 15 seconds' warning that the effects of a magnitude 7 to 8 offshore earthquake were about to hit; seismologists give such an earthquake a 40% chance of occurring in the next 10 years.

    In 1992, railway operators started deploying the Urgent Earthquake Detection and Alarm System (UrEDAS) along the country's bullet train lines. After detecting P waves, UrEDAS cuts power to trains in nearby sectors if the anticipated shaking will exceed a given threshold. In February, the Japan Meteorological Agency began deploying what will be the world's most comprehensive early warning system, featuring more than 200 stations throughout the four main islands. Installation of the $90 million network, called Nowcast, began in 2003 and could be completed in 2 years if the money keeps flowing. In December 2000, Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau switched on an islandwide network of 86 seismic stations that alerts the bureau's central office and a hospital, both in Taipei.

    Authorities are still trying to figure out the best way to use early warning systems. Officials at Taiwan's weather bureau receive warnings on their computer screens, “allowing staff to move to disaster response stations a few seconds quicker than if they wait for the shaking to start,” says Yih-Min Wu, a seismologist at the National University of Taiwan involved in setting up the system. Taiwan's high-speed rail line will likely be added to the system once train service begins next fall.

    Figure
    To a T.

    Applying different voltages alters conductivity of organic material (red and green).

    CREDIT: Y. YANG/NATURE MATERIALS 3, 918–922 (2004)

    Japan's system, partially operational, sends warnings to a select group of regional disaster response centers, private companies, an elementary school, and a university hospital in the Tohoku region northeast of Tokyo. Tohoku University's Motosaka, who is leading a government study of potential warning uses, says earthquake education and drills can be worked into the school curriculum, as is now being done at the Nakamachi Elementary School in Sendai. Pupils have been taught to duck under their desks to avoid falling ceiling tiles and lighting fixtures, and teachers to open doors so they don't jam shut and hinder a postquake evacuation. In a hospital, the warnings could allow surgeons to pause during delicate procedures and give rescue teams extra seconds to prepare.

    The list of possible applications is endless, says Thomas Heaton, a Caltech earthquake engineer and longtime proponent of early warning systems. It includes switching all traffic lights to red, closing valves in oil and gas pipelines, shutting down nuclear power plants, and preparing tsunami warnings. “I don't think anybody knows right now what all the potential applications will be,” says Heaton.

    One unresolved issue is whether to broadcast warnings to the general public. The Mexican system has generated 11 warnings of strong (magnitude 6 or greater) earthquakes in 14 years without a hitch, according to Juan Espinosa-Aranda, director general of Mexico's CIRES. “Contrary to what many expected, we have never had any indications that the warnings resulted in panic,” he says. Part of the reason, says Heaton, may be their benign content: “Ninety percent of the time, the message will be ‘This will be light shaking, relax and enjoy it.’”

    Without warning

    To date, the payoff from early warning systems is scant, proponents admit. In 12 years, operators of Japan's UrEDAS can cite only one case in which the warning headed off a potentially dangerous situation. That occurred in May 2003, when a magnitude 8 earthquake struck northeast of Tokyo: The system halted two trains headed toward a viaduct that had suffered cracks in 23 columns.

    In contrast, a bullet train derailed during the country's most recent severe earthquake, on 23 October in Niigata Prefecture, because the train was too close to the epicenter for a warning to arrive in time. Likewise, no early warning system would have mitigated the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake, which claimed 5000 lives, because the fault that ruptured runs right under the city. “Warnings don't work” in such cases, admits Motosaka.

    That fact of life, say scientists, means early warning systems should never replace seismic preparedness. “We need to spend money on mitigation and preparedness,” says the University of Illinois's Olshanky. “Making promises of prediction or warnings distracts from this task.”

    Skepticism about earthquake warnings seems greatest in the United States, in part because the most dangerous faults are close to urban areas. Caltech's Heaton says that federal agencies have rejected several of his proposals to test a prototype early warning system for southern California after they received mixed reviews. “Half the reviewers said it was a great idea, and the other half said it's not very useful,” he says.

    To find out who's right, seismologists need hard data. Although they don't wish for misfortune, they know that earthquakes are inevitable. And they are counting on Mexico, Taiwan, and Japan to serve as test beds.

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