Random Samples

Science  13 May 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5724, pp. 948

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  1. Cultivating the Third Eye


    The zoology laboratory of Dungar College in the small town of Bikaner in the Indian state of Rajasthan has some strange inmates: more than 50 three- eyed frogs. The amphibians have confirmed a long-held suspicion of developmental biologists that pineal glands retain the ability to respond to light and even to form into eyes.

    Zoologist Om Prakash Jangir and his colleagues earlier found that if they removed tadpoles' eyes and raised the animals in a medium enriched with vitamin A, a new eye developed within 10 days over the site of the pineal gland. The researchers then transplanted tadpole pineal glands between the eyes of month-old frogs. With the help of some vitamin A, most of the amphibians developed third eyes within 15 days, the scientists report in the May issue of the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology.

    “In lower vertebrates, the pineal organ had a visual role which got lost during evolution. Our experiments show that this vestigial organ can be activated in vertebrates,” says Jangir. Both the eyes and the pineal organ depend on similar developmental signals in the embryo and express the same homeobox gene, he says. Ramesh Ramachandra Bhonde of the National Center for Cell Science in Pune calls the achievement “an important milestone” that contributes to the value of the pineal gland as a model in studies of both evolution and development.

  2. Mating for Autism?

    If cases of autism are on the increase, as some believe, here's one provocative explanation: Blame the rise on marriages between like-minded people, whom psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University in the U.K. calls “systemizers.”

    Baron-Cohen argues that autism and related conditions like Asperger's are manifestations of what he calls the “extreme male brain”: one with weak social skills and a strong tendency to “systemize,” or think according to rules and laws. In a study of 1000 U.K. families, he has reported that the fathers as well as the grandfathers of children with autism spectrum conditions are more likely to work in professions such as engineering. And the mothers are also likely to be systemizers “with male-typical interests,” he says.

    Baron-Cohen, whose theory is in press at the journal Progress in Neuropsycho-pharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, says he and colleagues are performing genetic studies, collecting subjects, and conducting population surveys in systemizer-heavy areas, such as Silicon Valley, to test the idea that techies marrying each other is raising autism rates.

    Some balk at the idea. Psychologist Elizabeth Spelke of Massachusetts Institute of Technology says there's no good evidence for an “inborn, male predisposition for systemizing.” But psychiatrist Herbert Schreier of Children's Hospital in Oakland, California, believes the intermarriage of techies “probably does account for why you have pockets of high autism around Stanford and MIT.” Drawing on his own practice, he adds that fathers of children with learning disabilities have a disproportionate tendency to be engineers or computer scientists.

  3. Counting by Gates


    Microsoft Chair Bill Gates may know how to add up the profits of his software giant, but his math is a bit shaky on the labor power front. Microsoft has many vacant positions because “there just aren't as many [U.S.] graduates with a computer science background,” Gates lamented last month at a forum on innovation and education at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The shortage of grads “creates a dilemma for us, in terms of how we get our work done,” noted the world's richest man.

    But the data tell a different story. A newly published survey by the Computing Research Association (CRA) of top university departments show that the number of U.S. bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science rose by 85% from 1998 to 2004; a similar rise has occurred in doctoral programs since 1999 (see graph, above). The annual number of new undergrad majors has admittedly fallen off since the dot.com bust in 2000, notes CRA's Jay Vegso. “But these numbers have always been cyclical,” he says. “I don't see any reason to panic.”

  4. Egyptian Beauty


    Last week, archaeologists in Cairo unveiled a well-preserved, newly discovered 2300-year-old mummy—which Egyptian Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass says “may be the most beautiful mummy ever found in Egypt.” The unidentified figure has a golden mask and is covered in brilliantly colored images of gods and goddesses as well as illustrations of the mummification process. It was found 2 months ago in the Saqqara pyramids complex, 20 kilometers south of Cairo, in the necropolis of King Teti. Scientists plan to do computed tomography studies of the mummy before it goes on display.

  5. Nonprofit World

    Norway's Nobels. Sweden's Nobel Prizes just got a little neighborly competition. Last week, Norwegian-born philanthropist Fred Kavli announced three $1 million prizes for research in astrophysics, neuroscience, and nanotechnology. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters will make the biennial selections beginning in 2008.

    The fields were chosen because they are ripe for important breakthroughs, says David Auston, president of the Kavli Foundation, which supports 10 research foundations worldwide (Science, 21 January, p. 340), and may be revised over the years.

    Kavli, who made his fortune selling sensors for automobiles and aircraft, wants the new prizes to recognize “more daring” discoveries than the Nobels. Auston says: “If a major development occurred in the last 5 to 10 years, we want to acknowledge that.”

  6. Deaths


    Hazard-meister. After a career spent helping protect fellow Filipinos from natural hazards, the former head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has fallen victim to a more mundane hazard of his profession.

    On 28 April, Raymundo Punongbayan, 68, died in a helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of four staffers from the institute that he elevated to international prominence. The group was returning from a landslide hazard survey.

    In 1991, Punongbayan won acclaim for an effort that moved 80,000 people from harm's way before Mount Pinatubo erupted. “Ray brought Philippine natural- hazard efforts into the modern world,” says volcanologist Christopher Newhall of the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle, Washington. “He was a good scientist and a masterful public relations person and politician.”

    Integration pioneer. Social psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose work on the negative effects of school segregation was instrumental in the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling outlawing the practice, died on 1 May at his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. He was 90.

    Clark belonged to a pioneering generation of African-American scholars. He was the first to earn a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University (his wife and collaborator Mamie Phipps Clark was second); the first to become tenured in the City College system of New York; the first elected to the New York State Board of Regents; and the first black to be president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

    Clark and his wife are remembered for a famous study using black and white dolls that showed that children in a segregated school thought the black dolls were bad. As APA president, he created a Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility that brought problems of social justice within psychology into greater prominence. “Clark was a deeply compassionate person committed to racial equality,” says psychologist George Albee, a former president of the association. “He was a quiet, scholarly man but persistent and unwavering.”

  7. Pioneers


    Housekeeping fellowships. Nobelist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard says she is tired of watching young women scientists struggle to balance family and career. So the developmental geneticist has launched an initiative to help pay for household help.

    The Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation will give roughly $600 a month to a handful of top-notch, early-career scientists who are mothers. Nüsslein-Volhard, director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, says the money is not primarily intended for daycare but to pay someone to help with cleaning and cooking.

    It's maddening “when a top woman scientist can't make it to a seminar because she has to go home and do the laundry,” says Maria Leptin, a developmental biologist at the University of Cologne in Germany and a member of the foundation, which has so far raised over $500,000. “She should concentrate on what is most important—doing her work and spending time with her family—and nothing else.” The first awards, lasting 1 to 3 years, will be made later this year and then annually.

  8. Sidelines


    Loud and clear. Physicists can filibuster, too. That was the message from string theorist Ed Witten, who read from a particle physics textbook during a mock filibuster at Princeton University begun late last month to protest a Republican threat to eliminate the filibuster by changing the rules of the U.S. Senate. The student-organized protest was held outside a campus building named for its donors, the family of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN).

    Listening to physics—Nobelist Frank Wilczek joined the protest—was a welcome change from a steady diet of novels and phone books offered up by other speakers, says Princeton sophomore Asheesh Siddique, one of the organizers: “We thought it was very cool.”