Random Samples

Science  20 May 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5725, pp. 1110
  1. Neandertal Bite Not Incisive


    There's no mistaking the jutting face of a Neandertal, with its swept-back cheekbones, big nose, and long mandible. Because teeth were important tools for early hominids, some believe the Neandertal mug evolved to maximize biting power, especially at the front teeth, which in many Neandertals show signs of extreme wear. Modern humans' more delicate features may have been made possible by innovations such as cooking and more sophisticated tools.

    But a new study takes the bite out of this proposition. A team led by anthropologist Robert Franciscus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City used a biomechanical model that estimated the maximum forces generated at numerous points on the teeth and jaws to compare three Neandertal skulls with those of 29 anatomically modern humans. The team reports in the June American Journal of Physical Anthropology that there was no significant difference in jaw power between the two species. The authors speculate that the heavy tooth wear in Neandertals was due to more repetitive use rather than greater biting power.

    “This study puts some numbers to these hypotheses and finds them wanting,” says New York University anthropologist Susan Anton. The authors suggest that researchers would do better to chew on alternative explanations for the Neandertal face, such as adaptation to cold climate or differences in respiratory physiology.

  2. Time's Up on Time Travel

    Perhaps the best experimental evidence yet against the feasibility of going back in time is that no one from the future showed up at a convention on time travel on 7 May at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

    The gathering sprang from a late-night idea of MIT graduate student Amal Dorai, who read in a comic strip that only one such meeting would be needed because any future time travelers could attend.

    Theoretical physicist Alan Guth of MIT filled in roughly 500 conventioneers on the leading proposals for time travel. The best that can be offered is a limited deal, he said. One scenario involves traveling through a wormhole, a tube through spacetime. By swirling one end of the hole at near the speed of light, time inside would slow down so a round trip could be made in a split second. But to keep a wormhole open would require a negative energy density— a state seen only at the quantum level.

    The other proposal, said Guth, involves circling around two infinitely long cosmic strings, theorized tight wrinkles in spacetime with intense gravitational fields. In this scenario, you could return to the exact place and time you left, but you would be able to kill your departing self, creating a paradox that is at the heart of objections to time travel. Another problem is that such cosmic strings could take half the energy of the universe to create. MIT theoretical physicist Ed Farhi regretfully concluded: “It does look like the laws of physics conspire to prevent time travel.”

  3. Primal Art


    On the block at Bonhams auction house in London, alongside a Renoir sculpture and a William Wegman photo of a dog in a flight suit, are three abstract paintings by an artist named “Congo the Chimp.”

    Congo did the work in the mid-1950s under the tutelage of zoologist Desmond Morris, who was studying primates' sense of aesthetics. When Morris got the paintings displayed in London's Institute of Contemporary Art, some felt the exhibit mocked modern art.

    “The art world should take these seriously,” says primatologist Franz de Waal of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “I always felt Congo had it down. He had a sense of color, composition, and completion.” Qualities of his work show neurological commonalities with humans, de Waal says, such as a sense of symmetry. It's estimated the trio will fetch $1100 to $1500 at the 20 June auction.

  4. Three Faces of Tut

    National Geographic has unveiled three independent attempts to reconstruct the face of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, who died 3300 years ago. The three teams-French, U.S., and Egyptian-based their reconstructions on 1700 computed tomography (CT) scans of the mummy that were made by the Egyptians early this year (Science, 28 January, p. 511).

    The reconstructions differ on details of soft tissue, such as the end of the nose. One team was headed by New York University anthropologist Susan Anton, working with artist Michael Anderson of Yale University's Peabody Museum. The French effort was headed by Jean-Noel Vignal, a forensic anthropologist at the National Gendarmerie in Paris, with the help of anthropological sculptor Elisabeth Daynes. Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass led the Egyptian team. The Eygptian and French teams worked with the CT scans knowing they belonged to Tut; the NYU team didn't know.

  5. In The News


    Fatal translation. Scientists usually like having their studies cited, but Harvard epidemiologists Wafaie Fawzi and David Hunter were distressed to see their research mentioned last week in advertisements in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. The two researchers allege that the ads, placed by European vitamin salesman and physician Matthias Rath (left), misrepresented their work on nutrition and HIV/AIDS to support Rath's view that antiretroviral therapy (ART) is ineffective against AIDS. Rath has been aggressively marketing vitamins to HIV-infected patients in South Africa.

    The study in question, published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that multivitamins can delay HIV's progression and increase the time span before ART is needed. “However, it is important to underscore that the multivitamin supplements should not be considered as an alternative to ART, but as a complementary intervention that is part of a comprehensive care package,” Fawzi and Hunter said in a statement last week.

    Rath also has been sued for defamation by the Treatment Action Campaign in Cape Town, South Africa, which raises public awareness of HIV treatments. “We obviously believe that we have a very strong case and that we'll win,” says Don Karn, spokesperson for the Dr. Rath Health Foundation, insisting that the ads describe Fawzi and Hunter's work accurately.

  6. Politics

    Rebuilding Iraqi science. A 44-year-old female biochemist will become Iraq's science and technology minister in the first elected government in decades. Bassima Yousef Boutros, currently a professor at Salah Eldin University in northern Iraq, is a Chaldo-Assyrian Christian.

    Boutros told a Christian Web site, Answers in Action, that she would do her best “to use science and technology as the basis to build a civilized Iraq.” Iraq's prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, has promised to name seven women to a 36-member cabinet.

  7. Awards

    Developmental biology prize. Geneticist Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City and pathologist Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have together won the $250,000 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology for helping to develop gene targeting. The technique allows researchers to disable or modify the function of specific genes in lab mice. This is the 10th year of the prize, which is awarded annually to investigators whose work has contributed to the understanding of birth defects.

  8. The Inside Story


    Blog on. For months, Doug Roberts's Web log has given scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico a chance to complain anonymously about their boss, George “Pete” Nanos. But Nanos's departure earlier this month (Science, 13 May, p. 936) doesn't mean the blog is obsolete, says Roberts, a computer scientist who has worked at Los Alamos for 20 years. The blog (lanl-the-real-story.blogspot. com) will continue to discuss the lab's woes, he says, from wasteful expenditures to the improper handling of classi-fied information. “Dr. Nanos wasn't the only problem we have at Los Alamos,” Roberts says.

  9. Two Cultures


    Embodying Einstein. It's not often that a dance choreographer has to think about the theories of Albert Einstein. But for his latest work, Mark Baldwin, the new director of the London-based Rambert Dance Company, has taken Einstein's 1905 papers on special relativity and Brownian motion as inspiration. The fruits of his labor, six dances called Constant Speed, premiere next week in London as part of the Institute of Physics' Einstein year celebrations.

    Baldwin leaned on Ray Rivers, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College, London, to grasp the essence of the papers. “What I discovered during this process is just how compatible dance and physics are,” says Baldwin.

    For his interpretation of Brownian motion, all 22 members of the dance company will jitter on stage in the manner of microscopic particles being bombarded from all directions. The performance will be preceded by talks on Einstein's theories.