Random Samples

Science  04 Feb 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5710, pp. 670

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  1. After the Earth Moved


    NEW DELHI—Indian geologists are scrambling to remap the Andaman and Nicobar islands after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck South Asia on 26 December.

    Prithvish Nag, India's surveyor general, said at a scientific meeting here last month that the 700-kilometer island chain in the Bay of Bengal has moved southeast toward Sumatra by as much as 1.25 meters and has been twisted in a counterclockwise direction. At the same time, the combination of sinking land and rising water levels has meant that the sea has swallowed roughly 1 vertical meter of coastline.

    India plans to spend at least $25 million to document the island's new geomorphology, Nag said. The dozen or so Global Positioning System control locations on the islands needed to be recalibrated after having been thrown for a loop by the magnitude 9 earthquake. Nag said the remapping must be done quickly so that the government can provide advice on where to relocate residents now temporarily housed in refugee camps on the islands, which support a large air force base and a substantial navy presence.

  2. The Burden of Sex

    Sex has its repercussions, especially in the United States. There, premature death and disability linked to sexual behavior is triple that in other wealthy countries, researchers have found.

    Previously, epidemiologists have counted cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and deaths caused by them. But that's only part of the picture, says Shahul Ebrahim of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Some STDs boost the risk of a second infection or cervical cancer or cause infertility. Ebrahim and colleagues also included premature deliveries and unintended pregnancies, which cause psychological distress, as causes of disability.

    They found that U.S. women bear more of the brunt than men. In particular, they suffer from curable infections, such as chlamydia, and their consequences, particularly infertility, the team reports in the February issue of Sexually Transmitted Infections. For men, HIV is by far the leading problem. The heavy toll is not surprising, given the higher incidence of HIV and unintended pregnancies in the U.S., says epidemiologist Ward Cates, president of Family Health International, a nonprofit in Research Triange Park, North Carolina.

  3. A Nose for Survival


    Encountering a robber crab might send you running in the opposite direction. The world's largest land-living arthropod weighs up to 4 kilograms and steals anything it can nab with its formidable pincers. It turns out the crab has another unusual feature: It has evolved to smell on land much the way insects do. The finding is “cool,” says Leslie Vosshall, an olfactory researcher at Rockefeller University in New York City.

    Bill Hansson, a chemical ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp, Sweden, measured the electrical activity of olfactory neurons in the crab's short antennae while puffing scents over these sensory organs. The electrical activity spurred by certain odors was the same in robber crabs as in insects. And like insects, the crabs weren't drawn to just any smell; they favored chemicals, like dimethyltrisulfide, that are released from decaying meat.

    Hansson's team also found that the short antennae are structurally similar to those of insects and have a wrinkly lining, which probably helps sense odors. This is a “great example of convergent evolution,” says Hansson. The researchers report their results in the 26 January issue of Current Biology.

  4. Da Vinci Discovery

    Five small rooms wedged between a Florentine military institute and a monastery were apparently once a canvas for Leonardo Da Vinci. Last month, three researchers at the Italian Institute of Military Geography announced that they'd stumbled upon mural paintings after an unused staircase was demolished. The soaring birds (see picture) closely resemble drawings by the 16th century master (inset). “To us, there seems to be no doubt,” says Roberto Manescalchi, one of the discoverers. Superimposing images of the wall paintings on drawings in Leonardo's Codex Atlanticus, he says, revealed a perfect match.

    Still, questions remain: Several experts have since visited the rooms, but they can't resolve whether the murals are by Leonardo himself or one of his pupils, says Cristina Acidini, head of an institute for the restoration of works of art in Florence operated by Italy's Ministry of Culture.

  5. Two Cultures


    Math is hip. After 37 years at the California Institute of Technology, mathematician Gary Lorden finally has students asking him for his autograph. But it's a television show, not his lectures, that has made him a celebrity.

    The chair of Caltech's math department, Lorden (inset) is an adviser to Numb3rs, a cop drama on CBS featuring mathematician Charlie (David Krumholtz), who helps his detective brother solve crimes. “It's kind of like Sherlock Holmes on steroids, where the steroids are mathematics and computer science,” says Lorden. “In one episode, they're tracing the outbreak of a disease from a kind of terrorist attack. Another one involves predicting bank robbers' behavior: where and when they are going to hit next.”

    Lorden is supposed to lend authenticity to the mathematics on the show, which he's done so far by suggesting changes to the dialogue and having graduate students write equations on Charlie's blackboards. Lorden hopes that Numb3rs will help students realize that mathematics isn't just for fusty academics.

  6. Awards


    Academy honors. A veteran of the campaign to wipe out smallpox has been awarded the National Academy of Sciences' (NAS's) highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal.

    Epidemiologist William H. Foege's work on smallpox eradication in Africa in the 1960s led to the successful “ring vaccination” strategy of inoculating close contacts of infected people. Foege later directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, steered the international Task Force for Child Survival and Development, and worked on eradicating Guinea worm disease and river blindness at the Carter Center. In 1999 he joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he helped start programs including hepatitis B immunization and AIDS vaccine development. His work “has changed the world as we know it,” says NAS home secretary John Brauman.

    Now retired, Foege will be honored 2 May along with 17 other winners of various academy awards.

    Crafoord prize. A transatlantic trio of cosmologists has won the 2005 Crafoord Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

    Princeton University's James Gunn and James Peebles and Cambridge University's Martin Rees will share the $500,000 prize for work on how the universe evolved from a smooth primordial soup of particles and radiation into the present cacophony of galaxies and clusters. All three are theorists, but Gunn is also lead project scientist of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the largest project to date to map the three-dimensional distribution of galaxies.

    “These are all very large names in cosmology,” says theoretical astrophysicist Vincent Icke of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Their career contributions, he explains, have been “a real boon to the field.”

  7. Jobs


    Moving on. In a different political climate, chemistry Nobelist Peter Agre says he might have been headed for the National Institutes of Health. Instead, the outspoken Agre—a vigorous supporter of Democrat John Kerry in last fall's presidential campaign—is heading to Durham, North Carolina, to become Duke University Medical Center's vice chancellor for science and technology, a newly created position that combines advising with advocacy.

    A professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, since 1981, Agre says he was one of three candidates under consideration to be director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) before dropping out last summer because he couldn't stomach the Bush Administration's stance on key science issues such as stem cell research. Last week Elizabeth Nabel accepted the position at NHLBI (Science, 28 January, p. 495).

    But Agre insists he is “not going to Duke in any partisan way.” Instead, he'll help set research priorities for the medical center, serve as the university's spokesperson on key science policy issues, and act as a “cheerleader for science” by promoting science literacy among the general public. “I have a weakness for championing causes,” he says.

  8. Pioneers


    A flood of interest. Since the tsunami devastated South Asia, Evan Variano, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, has taught more than 500 middle school and high school students how tsunamis develop and travel. Variano sets up a narrow, water-filled tube with a balloon inside, then inflates the balloon. The result is a sudden displacement of water, sending tsunami-like waves to the far end, where the amount of flooding depends on the shape of a miniature coastline. It works better than a lecture, he says: “The demo catches their attention, and they are curious to know more.”