Random Samples

Science  06 May 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5723, pp. 788

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  1. Mystery Toad Blowups


    It isn't easy being green, as the saying goes. That's especially true if you're a toad in Germany. Over the past week, toads have reportedly been spontaneously exploding around a small pond in an upscale Hamburg suburb. Observers report that the amphibians crawl out of the water, swell to several times normal size, and then burst, their guts shooting a meter into the air. More than 1000 carcasses have been collected so far. The area has been dubbed the “Pond of Death” and closed to the public.

    The Hamburg Conservation Alliance is organizing an investigation, but so far scientists are stumped. The top theory was that a pathogenic fungus from South America known to cause bloating had found its way into the pond via foreign horses at a nearby racetrack. But no traces of the fungus, or of any foreign bacterium or virus, have been found in the tissues of exploded toads. Nor have any toxins been found in tests of the water or in other pond organisms.

    A Berlin veterinary surgeon has suggested that crows peck holes in toads to get at their livers, and the toads swell up in self-defense. But experts are skeptical. Samples of exploded toad tissue are being sent to labs, and it may take weeks to clear up the mystery. Michael Berrill, an amphibian pathologist at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, says he “would have to see it to believe it.” Although he's seen frogs bloated from bacterial infections, he's never seen an inflated toad.

  2. Camera Unobscura

    Using a technique developed to analyze satellite photos, scholars have read heretofore undecipherable fragments of ancient papyrus and have discovered snatches of lost texts by Sophocles, Lucian, and Euripides, among other treasures.

    The fragments are from the famed Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 400,000 written artifacts that were dug up from rubbish heaps around the ruins of the eponymous Egyptian city a century ago. The collection includes official documents, private letters, lists, and literature, and it has already given scholars unparalleled insight into daily life in the ancient provincial capital. But many bits of the papyri are too badly discolored to read, says Dirk Obbink, a classicist at Oxford University in the U.K., which houses the collection.

    Obbink enlisted electrical engineer Gene Ware and colleagues at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to study samples using multispectral imaging. The researchers took multiple digital photographs of each piece. Each photo captured light of a different wavelength, and by analyzing the images, the researchers could see through the grime and enhance the contrast between ink and papyrus. That increased the number of readable bits by about 20%, Obbink says. The findings will be published this summer by the Egypt Exploration Society in London.

    Even though most pieces contain only a few sentences or words, says Todd Hickey, a papyrologist at the University of California, Berkeley, “you'd be surprised how much you can get out of a postcard-sized fragment.”

  3. Wind Power in Wordsworth Country


    Photomontage put together by wind-farm opponents. (Turbines are scaled to about projected size.) Two major environmental groups are telling Brits who would live near a proposed wind farm: Yes, in your backyard. Although known for protecting open spaces against development, London's Greenpeace U.K. and Friends of the Earth have now endorsed plans for a wind farm in the north of England. “It's not often we're supporting a particular development,” says Douglas Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace U.K. “But we need energy.”

    The project would dot 27 turbines across a windswept 4-kilometer stretch of countryside in the Lake District, the bucolic landscape in which the poet William Wordsworth lived and drew inspiration. The setup, near Tebay, would provide up to 80 megawatts of power, enough for at least 47,000 homes, the developers say.

    Some conservation groups are protesting the incursion, saying that the white, 110-meter-tall turbines will spoil the scenery and hurt tourism. “It is a relatively wild landscape” that should stay free of “manmade structures,” says Ken Burgess of the U.K. government's Countryside Agency. The agency was to vote this week on whether to attempt to block the development by recommending designation of the area as a national park.

    The U.K. Department of Trade and Industry will decide whether to approve the plan pending a 7-week public inquiry. Such projects are a step toward reaching the government's goal of raising the proportion of electricity the country gets from renewable sources from 3% to 10% by 2010.

  4. Jobs


    Back in business. After 4 years in academia, computer scientist and entrepreneur Jeong Kim is returning to Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, New Jersey, as president of Bell Labs. He succeeds James O'Shea, who's retiring after 33 years at the company.

    A former nuclear submarine officer for the U.S. Navy, Kim entered the corporate limelight in 1992 when he founded Yurie Systems Inc., a high-tech communications equipment company. In 1998, he made a fortune and was absorbed into Lucent when the telecom giant acquired Yurie Systems Inc. for $1 billion. He later served as president of Lucent's Optical Network Group before joining the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2001.

    Kim's “considerable experience, entrepreneurial spirit, and proven track record in both commercializing new technology and leading high-performance technical teams” make him an ideal choice for the job, says Patricia Russo, chairperson and CEO of Lucent Technologies.

    Skyward. A former high school science teacher will take over the Multi-Mirror Telescope (MMT) Observatory atop Mount Hopkins in Amado, Arizona. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Faith Vilas, 53, who helped detect Neptune's rings in 1984 while a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in nearby Tucson.

    Now leader of the planetary astronomy group at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Vilas hasn't been around telescopes in years. But selection committee members say her technical and managerial expertise make her a perfect choice to head the facility, run jointly by the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Arizona.

    “The MMT represents some of the finest facilities that astronomy has today,” Vilas says about the combination of a 6.5-meter telescope and a collection of instruments. A Japanese mission to rendezvous with an asteroid in September will keep her busy until December.

  5. Awards


    Forest ecologist Jerry Franklin, theoretical physicist Sidney Drell, and condensed matter physicist Mildred Dresselhaus are among the winners of this year's Heinz Awards. Franklin receives the prize in the environment category for his contribution to conserving America's forests; Drell in the public policy sphere for his work on reducing the danger and proliferation of nuclear weapons; and Dresselhaus in the category of technology, the economy, and employment for expanding opportunities for women in science. Each winner receives $250,000.

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineer Robert Langer has won the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.

    Inexpensive science. A half-million-dollar research award would not go very far in most scientific disciplines. But it can be “a lifetime of funding for a social scientist,” jokes the latest winner of the Alan T. Waterman Award from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

    Dalton Conley (above) is the first sociologist ever to win the prize, which has been awarded annually since 1975 to a promising researcher age 35 or under. A professor at New York University, Conley receives the honor for his examination of how socioeconomic status gets transmitted through generations.

    Besides being personally rewarding, the award should help counter the insecurity that some sociology researchers have about “not being taken seriously as scientists,” says Conley. He plans to use the money, which he will receive over 3 years, to hire more graduate students and collaborate with biologists on studying the effect of genes and environment on human behavior.

  6. Politics


    Cause for cheer. Biologist Adnan Badran has already spent much of his career boosting science in Jordan by helping establish two universities and authoring 15 textbooks. Now, he has a chance to take it to the next level as the first scientist to lead the Jordanian government.

    Badran, 70, who last month was appointed prime minister by Jordan's monarch, King Abdullah II, says his first goal will be to double the science budget from its current $100 million. In addition to combating a chronic brain drain, Badran is looking for “some big, cross-disciplinary projects that will get our scientists working together.” His wish list includes solar energy, salt-resistant crops, and a controversial plan to replenish the Dead Sea by connecting it to the Red Sea. He also hopes to preside this year over the start-up of the SESAME synchrotron research facility.

    “Financial times are rough here,” says Mohammad Hamdan, a computer scientist at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan, “but now we have someone who will do his utmost for science.”