Random Samples

Science  01 Apr 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5718, pp. 46

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  1. $1 Million Reward for Extinct Species


    Although it has the hallmarks of an April Fools' Day joke, an Australian magazine says it is offering a $1.25 million (about U.S. $0.97 million) reward for conclusive proof that the Tasmanian tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalu, still roams.

    The Tasmanian tiger was officially declared extinct in 1986, because there had been no confirmed sightings of a wild thylacine in decades and the last captive tiger had died in Tasmania's Hobart Zoo in 1936. Nevertheless, regular sightings continue to be investigated.

    Garry Linnell, editor of The Bulletin, says his magazine had already been planning its competition to mark the publication's 125th anniversary when unverified photos of a tiger taken by a German tourist in February sparked a media whirlwind. The Bulletin quickly launched its own effort to flush out the elusive animal. One Tasmanian tour operator has since reportedly added another U.S. $1.36 million to the prize pool.

    But the money is not just a click away. Entrants will have to submit digital photos of an unharmed tiger and later provide video footage as well as a certificate from a vet who has examined the animal. Finally, a panel of scientists will conduct DNA tests to verify that the animal is indeed a genuine Tasmanian tiger.

    Biologists working for the Tasmanian government believe it is almost impossible to claim the reward, because any surviving tiger would still be protected by law and attempts to catch one would require a permit. “We will not issue permits on the basis of public curiosity,” says Nick Mooney, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment. “[The reward] is unlikely to be claimed whether Tasmanian tigers are there or not.”

    Linnell agrees that “the odds are long” but says he is looking for the “scientific story of the century.”

  2. Serpentine Robots Inch Ahead


    Snakelike robots could one day be slithering around waste disposal sites to check for leaking drums, or inching through building wreckage with a camera and microphone to probe for survivors. This prototype, dubbed OmniTread, was built over the past few years by roboticist Johann Borenstein of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his colleagues. The 1.2-meter-long machine crawls with treads that cover 80% of its surface and flexes powerfully, thanks to four pneumatic joints. OmniTread can pass through or around obstructions that most other robots cannot, says Borenstein.

    In the March issue of Industrial Robot, the team describes the results of tests on various terrains. OmniTread “climbs stairs pretty well; it crosses gaps pretty well,” says Wendell Sykes of Context Systems in Carlisle, Massachusetts, who consults on robotics for government agencies. Borenstein is “probably about a year ahead of everyone else.”

    The Michigan researchers are now working on a smaller-diameter version of OmniTread that will hold enough batteries and compressed gas to operate untethered for up to an hour.

  3. Saving the Palm for Future Sundays


    Conservationists are hoping that ecofriendly palms recently delivered to Christian churches in three states will prove to be a blessing in disguise. A similar effort in Colombia is meant to give endangered birds a chance for survival.

    In a tradition symbolizing Jesus being welcomed to Jerusalem, many churches pass out palm fronds at their Palm Sunday services; the religious holiday accounts for about 10% of the annual U.S. market for the fronds. But fronds come from a rapidly dwindling number of palms, so environmentalists are trying to protect the trees and the rainforest ecosystem in which they thrive.

    This year the Canada-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) arranged to purchase fronds from Mexico and Guatemala that had been harvested without leaving the tree bare. “You get more out of each plant, and you're not deforesting the rainforest,” says CEC spokesperson Spencer Tripp. Twenty-two churches across Minnesota, North Dakota, and Massachusetts used fronds from CEC, which now plans to set up a certification system for ecofriendly palms.

    And in Colombia, churches teamed with Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International and other groups to promote the use of alternative palm species. The now commonly used wax palm is one of the last remaining habitats of Colombia's endangered yellow-eared parrots, which currently number fewer than 1000.

  4. Awards


    Abel Prize. The new winner of the $980,000 Abel Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters calls himself a hybrid mathematician. Peter Lax, 78, says the “delicate balance between applications of mathematics and pure math” at New York University's Courant Institute, his alma mater, shaped his career.

    Born in Budapest, Lax spent a year at Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II working on equations governing the transport of neutrons and other problems relating to the atomic bomb, and he consulted at the lab throughout his career. His love of pure math was nurtured in part by fellow Hungarian Paul Erdös. “He looked after me, encouraged me, and gave me problems to solve,” Lax says. Lax is currently working on an expression known as the Korteweg-de Vries equation. “There are mysteries remaining which I am trying to unravel,” he says.

    Franklin Institute prizes. French organic chemist Henri Kagan has won the $250,000 Bower Award for Science Achievement from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kagan, a professor emeritus at the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, receives the honor for his work on asymmetric catalysis.

    The institute has also announced the winners of its Benjamin Franklin medals: Aravind Joshi for computer and cognitive sciences, Yoichiro Nambu for physics, Peter Vail for earth and environmental sciences, and Andrew Viterbi for electrical engineering.

  5. Jobs

    In the vicinity. Dolly the sheep's creator Ian Wilmut will move his labs into town this summer when he joins the faculty of the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. Wilmut says he will continue to collaborate with researchers at the Roslin Institute outside Edinburgh, where he has worked for the past 3 decades.

    Call of duty. Physiologist Antonio Scarpa is giving up some of his community service so that he can take a new job at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that serves the community.

    Currently chair of the biophysics and physiology department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Scarpa has been named director of the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), which manages NIH's vast peer review system for extramural awards. “It's a chance to give something back to the community,” says the 62-year-old grantee, who has served on several study sections. Ironically, Scarpa has chosen to resign from the board of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, and sever ties to other professional organizations to steer clear of NIH's new—and more stringent—conflict-of-interest rules.

    The CSR job, which begins 1 July, will also reunite him and his wife, Meredith Bond, who in 2003 became chair of the physiology department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

  6. World


    Moving mainstream. The new president of Science Service in Washington, D.C., wants to get more scientists engaged in public education. “Society is extremely dependent on citizens who may not always have a scientific background, like firefighters and cops,” says Elizabeth Marincola, who has been executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, for the past 14 years. “When citizens don't understand science, their instinctive reaction to controversial issues—such as stem cells—is to first fear it and then reject it.”

    Founded in 1921, Science Service publishes Science News and runs the Intel STS prize competition for high school students.

  7. Politics


    Encore. The new science minister of Portugal has been given a second shot at boosting the country's research profile.

    Physicist José Mariano Gago took office on 12 March with orders to carry out the promise of new Socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates to double investment in research. In a previous 7-year term that ended in 2002, Gago received high marks for modernizing a research system that had stagnated under decades of dictatorship (Science, 9 March 2001, p. 1889). He also helped draft the Lisbon Strategy, an economic stimulus package for the European Union that calls for countries to boost their research investment to 3% of GDP by 2010.

    The appointment is good news for science throughout Europe, says Luc van Dyck of the European Life Sciences Forum in Heidelberg, Germany. He expects Gago to be a strong voice on the E.U.'s Competitiveness Council, which approves E.U. research policies.