Random Samples

Science  18 Mar 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5716, pp. 1718
  1. No Head Blow for Tut

    CREDIT: AP PHOTO/HO/SUPREME COUNCIL OF ANTIQUITIES

    Fifteen minutes in an x-ray scanner have quelled decades of speculation that King Tutankhamun was done in by a blow to the head. Previous 2D x-ray studies of King Tut's mummy had revealed two bone fragments in the boy-king's cranium and apparent thinning at the back of the skull, which some took as signs of a partially healed blow. Along with Tut's young age at death (19) and suspected intrigue within the royal family, the skull's state fueled theories that Tut was murdered before being entombed in 1352 B.C.E.

    In January a team led by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities did a computed tomography scan of the mummy and called in three international experts to help them pore over the 3D images. On 8 March, the team announced its conclusion: Tut's skull shows no signs of a blow to the head—partially healed or otherwise—during his lifetime. The team says the suspicious fragments most likely were created by the embalmers or by archaeologist Howard Carter's team, which discovered the mummy in 1922.

    Philosopher and Egyptologist Bob Brier of Long Island University in Brookville, New York, and a proponent of the murder theory, accepts the conclusions of the scanning team. However, he's not ready to rule out foul play. “The case is not closed,” Brier says. “You cannot say he wasn't poisoned; you cannot say he wasn't stabbed.”

  2. Taxonomy, Turkish Style

    CREDIT: ROYALTY-FREE/CORBIS

    Who knew that taxonomic nomenclature could undermine national unity? The Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry did, apparently, and earlier this month it changed the Latin names of three animals to expunge “divisive” references to two ethnic minorities: Kurds and Armenians.

    Turkey's relationship to Kurds and Armenians has long been tense. The government opposes Kurdish separatists and disputes Armenian claims that the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey's predecessor, had a policy of ethnic cleansing in Eastern Turkey in the early 20th century.

    Henceforth, the ministry declared in a 4 March statement, Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica, a Turkish subspecies of the red fox, will be referred to simply as Vulpes vulpes. The wild sheep Ovis armeniana becomes Ovis orientalis anatolicus, and the deer Capreolus capreolus armenius is now Capreolus capreolus capreolus. The statement alleges that the original names were given with “ill intent.”

    That seems far-fetched, says Andrew Polaszek, executive secretary of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), the body responsible for establishing species naming conventions. Polaszek says changing a species name for political reasons is verboten. But he adds that the Turkish changes probably don't violate ICZN rules because the new names are scientifically acceptable alternatives.

    However, taxonomists note that the ministry overlooked some microbial species whose names could be considered similarly divisive. “I certainly hope that the Turkish politicians don't discover the Azotobacter armeniacus, Cystobacter armeniaca, [or] Actinoplanes armeniacus,” says George Garrity, a microbiologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

  3. Probing Plant Defenses

    CREDIT: AXEL MITHÖFER/MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR CHEMICAL ECOLOGY

    Many plants send out a silent SOS when they are attacked by leaf-munching predators, releasing volatile chemicals that attract wasps and other insectivores to feast on the attackers. But scientists have been unsure what triggers the plant's cry for help: the damaged leaf, or something in the attackers' saliva.

    So scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, designed an ersatz worm, a computer-driven arm that punches small holes in a pinned-down leaf, inflicting systematic damage over hours. In contrast to previous studies in which suddenly slashing leaves with razor blades or scraping them with sandpaper failed to trigger the chemicals' release, the researchers found that lima bean plants subjected to the “MecWorm” released all the same compounds as plants subjected to attack by hungry insects or snails. The team reports its findings in the March issue of Plant Physiology.

    Now that the plant's role has been confirmed, co-inventor Axel Mithöfer says the tool should enable scientists to design controlled experiments that home in on exactly how plants detect and fend off hungry caterpillars.

  4. Urban Expansion

    CREDIT: CIESIN

    Urban areas cover 3% of Earth's land, far more than previously thought, according to a new map that combines census numbers with satellite imaging of nighttime lights. The map, a result of Columbia University's Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, reveals dense settlements stretching beyond Bangkok, Thailand (left), a dramatic contrast to the more centralized urban centers found in many other parts of the world.

  5. Jobs

    CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF USAMRIID

    Follow the money. Peter Jahrling, a veteran of U.S. biodefense research, has left the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland, to lead a high-containment lab being built by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The $105 million lab is also on the Fort Detrick campus.

    Jahrling, 58, spent 32 years at USAMRIID, working on exotic viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, and monkeypox, before his departure in January. He strongly opposes destruction of the last known stocks of variola, the smallpox virus, which he studied at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

    A traditional biodefense stronghold, USAMRIID has been eclipsed by NIAID and its billions in new money since 9/11 (Science, 14 June 2002, p. 1954). Jahrling's exit is another “dramatic loss” for the institute, says Heinz Feldmann of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. But the move will also foster collaboration between the new lab and USAMRIID, says Colonel Erik Henchal, commander of the Army lab.

    CREDIT: COPYRIGHT 1996 MICHAEL OKONIEWSKI

    Linear thinker. Caltech physicist Barry Barish says that he's ready to lead the design group for the International Linear Collider—once organizers work out details such as the source of his salary. “Assuming that happens, I'm going to take [the job],” Barish says.

    Currently the director of the gravitational-wave-detection effort known as LIGO, Barish will spend 80% of his time heading the collider project, a proposed multibillion-dollar electron-positron machine that many consider crucial to the future of high-energy physics. Barish hopes the team will be based in North America, suggesting that Vancouver, British Columbia, would be a good choice “because of the visa situation [in the United States].”

    According to Barish, the collider's design group will aim for a “strawman” design this year and a more fleshed-out version by the end of 2006.

  6. Deaths

    CREDIT: BARRY BARISH/CALTECH

    Shining star. Nobelist Hans Bethe, who helped develop the atomic bomb and later became an advocate for the control of nuclear weapons, died at his home in Ithaca, New York, on 6 March. He was 98.

    Raised in Germany, Bethe fled from the Nazis and came to Cornell University in 1935. During World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer put him in charge of theoretical physics for the bomb effort, where he made important contributions. Bethe later urged several U.S. presidents to restrict proliferation, efforts that helped lead to the atmospheric test ban in 1963 and controls on antiballistic missile systems in 1972.

    Bethe's work on nuclear reactions in the sun won him the Nobel Prize in 1967. He also worked with Richard Feynman on quantum electrodynamics, a theory of the electromagnetic force, and wrote a seminal paper on so-called order-disorder transitions in alloys. After retirement, he collaborated with John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, to explain why only a portion of neutrinos emanating from the sun were detected upon reaching Earth.

    “He brought clarity to an amazing number of fields of science—especially in astrophysics—where he had to work in the face of uncertainty,” says Cornell astrophysicist Edwin Salpeter.

  7. In The Public Eye

    CREDIT: HOUSE SCIENCE COMMITTEE

    Driven. Representative Bob Inglis (R-SC), who returned to Congress this year after a self-imposed exile, is a staunch conservative and budget hawk. But as the new chair of the House Science Committee's research panel, Inglis sounds a lot like a free-spending liberal when he talks about the importance of funding basic science.

    “We need to stop simple spending and start thoughtful investing,” Inglis declared last week at a hearing—his first as chair—on the president's 2006 request for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which he decried as woefully inadequate. A proponent of free trade, Inglis says that U.S. companies rely on innovation to stay ahead of the competition—and that federally funded research is the key first step in that process.

    Inglis, a 45-year-old lawyer who stepped down after three terms in the 1990s and reclaimed his old seat in November, says he took the science committee post to advance his passion for the so-called Smart Car, the next generation of pollution-free vehicles. (The auto industry is a major employer in his district.) But he's also eager to learn about NSF and the other federal civilian science agencies under the committee's jurisdiction.

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