Random Samples

Science  22 Apr 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5721, pp. 492
  1. Old Coot


    Perfectly preserved in silica, feathers and all, this 3D fossil depicts an American coot that met its death in one of Yellowstone National Park's hot springs between 5000 and 10,000 years ago. The bird, discovered by taphonomist Alan Channing of the University of Cardiff, Wales, and colleagues, is the first avian fossil to be found in a hot spring and one of the few vertebrates.

    Such fossils are rare, says Channing, because “soft tissues get destroyed very quickly” by microbes and chemicals in the springs. But in the case of the coot, corpse-colonizing microbes appear to have sped up a process of encrustation from the surrounding silica, leaving a perfect cast of the bird, the researchers report online on 13 April in Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B. Because soft tissue is generally not found in fossils, even “a one-off specimen could really answer some questions” about the lifestyles of ancient birds, says Channing.

  2. Venice Plans Sublagoon Tube


    Dotted line marks proposed track. After more than a century of discussion, Venice is on the verge of approving the construction of a subway under its lagoon to ease its canal-bound transportation system. The measure should also help protect the city's ancient buildings, which are set on wooden foundations: Waves created by canal traffic “damage their delicate structure,” according to the city council. If plans made public this month get the green light, a “sublagoon transport system” will start operation within 6 years. The $450 million project awaits funding pending local government approval of an environmental impact study.

    The single-line metro is designed to whisk travelers from the mainland-based airport, going underground at the lagoon and passing through the island of Murano before terminating on the northeast side of Venice. The proposal has divided opinion. Some environmentalists worry that the project, which would entail digging through consolidated sediment 20 meters below the lagoon floor, will cause further subsidence in the already-sinking city. But the city's outgoing mayor Paolo Costa says the subway would take tourist pressure off the ferries and “give Venice back to the Venetians.”

  3. Colored Memory

    When Daniel Tammet set the European record for pi memorization last year, absorbing 22,514 digits in just over 5 hours, he attributed the feat to his ability to see numbers as complex, three-dimensional “landscapes,” complete with color, texture, and sometimes even sound.

    To see whether this form of synesthesia is at the heart of Tammet's talent, neuro-scientist Vilayanur Ramachandran and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, gave the 26-year-old savant from Kent, U.K., a series of tests. He had 3 minutes to memorize 100 digits and their locations in a 10-by-10 array. When the digits were all the same size, Tammet recalled 68 correctly, and he remembered all 68 when tested again 3 days later. But when the test was given again with digits of different sizes to disrupt Tammet's synesthetic imagery, his performance plummeted to 16 correct, and zero 3 days later, according to a poster presented 10 April by Ramachandran's student Shai Azoulai at a meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in New York City.

    The team now plans to investigate the multiplication skills of Tammet, who says he visualizes the shapes of the numbers to be multiplied and then reads off the product from a third shape that appears in the space between them. The researchers want him to produce a set of number shapes, in clay or on a computer, so that they can uncover principles governing his number representation.

    “It's an extremely interesting idea” that such vast memory capability can be supported by synesthesia, says Lynn Robertson, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Little is known about memory tricks used by other savants because they tend to express little insight into their talents, says Ramachandran.

  4. Spanish Synchrotron


    The shape of Spain's first synchrotron was unveiled early this month. The winning design in a competition for the e165 million, 3-giga-electron-volt radiation source is a novel snail-like structure that will organically “allow for future expansions,” says physicist Joan Bordas, director of the ALBA Synchrotron, as it's called. Construction will start in Barcelona early next year. The facility is supposed to open for business in 2009.

  5. Jobs


    New head at Sandia. Weapons engineer and longtime lab employee Thomas Hunter (left) has been named director of Sandia National Laboratories, the Department of Energy's weapons research facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He succeeds C. Paul Robinson, who joined Lockheed Martin this month to bolster the company's bid to also run Sandia's in-state neighbor, Los Alamos National Laboratory (Science, 15 April, p. 339).

    Hunter, 59, joined Sandia in 1967 and has worked on underground testing, waste management, and energy and environmental programs. He says he'd like to see the lab's expertise in areas such as high-performance computing broadened from weapons to other “defense applications like homeland security.”

    Hunter is “absolutely passionate about national security,” says former Sandia chemist Al Sylwester, who helped Hunter build partnerships between Russian and U.S. weapons laboratories. Hunter takes over next week.

    Headed out. The end is in sight for Philippe Kourilsky, the embattled head of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. A new board of directors has decided that Kourilsky will not be asked to serve a second term and should even step down before his current 6-year mandate ends in December if a replacement can be found.

    The immunologist's attempts to rejuvenate Pasteur have been hampered by an authoritarian management style and a controversial plan to partially move the lab to a Paris suburb (Science, 4 March, p. 1391). The problems have made him a lame duck at a time when a major renovation and other important decisions are pending, says microbiologist Agnès Labigne, secretary of the board of directors. “We have to find a new director as soon as possible,” she says, adding that a search committee might start work this week. A Pasteur spokesperson said Kourilsky was traveling.

    Labigne says the new president should avoid micromanaging the institute and prefer fundamental research over ties with industry.

  6. Nonprofit World


    Broader role. Six weeks after accepting a second 5-year term as president of Berlin's Humboldt University, physicist Jürgen Mlynek has agreed instead to become president of the Helmholtz Society, Germany's largest research organization. The society, with a budget of $2.75 billion this year, governs 15 of Germany's largest science institutes, including the German Synchrotron Research Centre (DESY) in Hamburg and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin.

    Mlynek's departure has prompted accusations of disloyalty at Humboldt, where he had promised to continue reforms aimed at pushing the university to international prominence. He says he understands his critics but adds that the new position strengthens his ability to tackle “the needs of research and education in the German universities.”

    Mlynek says he gave up research when he became president at Humboldt but hopes to retain ties to his former lab. “Whenever I am strongly frustrated, I go over and talk to the students, and I feel better,” he says. He takes up his new job in autumn, succeeding Walter Kröll, who is retiring.

  7. Politics


    Change of heart. Missouri scientists who favor human embryonic stem cell research found an unlikely political ally this month. In an hourlong floor speech, Christopher Koster, a freshman Republican state senator, cited science and Scripture to help kill a bill that would have outlawed somatic cell nuclear transfer.

    “The Psalms tell us, ‘He knit me together in my mother's womb,'” Koster, 40, told his colleagues. “The National Institutes of Health tells us a human embryo exists from the time of implantation until the end of the eighth week.”

    Koster voted in February to move the same bill to the floor, although he claims he was unsure of his stance at the time. Subsequent talks with religious mentors and scientists convinced him that the “human miracle” of normal embryo development was different from research cloning. That decision made him a “hero on the floor” to business leaders, scientists, and patient groups who had fought the bill for months, says lobbyist Rose Windmiller of Washington University in St. Louis.

  8. They Said It

    “I won the lottery. Most people in my situation would have died, and I got a really lucky break.”

    —Nobelist Eric Cornell, who returned to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, this month after surviving necrotizing fasciitis. Cornell's left arm and shoulder had to be amputated because of the infection, which is caused by a flesh-killing bacterium.