Random Samples

Science  09 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5741, pp. 1670

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  1. Out in The Cold


    Manatees laze in power plant water. Florida manatees will soon need a new winter haven. For nearly 50 years, when ambient water temperatures drop below 20°C, manatees have basked in the warmth of outflows from nearly a dozen power plants on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

    Now, stringent environmental regulations and rising fuel costs may shut many of the plants down. Weaning the animals off the outflows must begin soon, say David Laist of the Marine Mammal Commission in Bethesda, Maryland, and John E. Reynolds of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, in the summer issue of Coastal Management. If a plant shuts down during a cold winter, hundreds of manatees with no alternate sanctuary could die, they warn. “Once we identify solutions that could work, it will take a long time to get them into place,” Reynolds says.

    So how to teach an old manatee new tricks? Reopen access to the natural springs that used to shelter them and create solar-power-heated refuges to tide them over until they find their new digs, say the researchers.

  2. Plying an Ancient Trade Route


    A 12.5-meter reed boat, a replica of crafts that plied the Persian Gulf 5000 years ago, has been reconstructed by marine archeologists. Composed only of traditional materials like reeds, tar, leather, goat hair, and ropes of date palm fibers, the boat—named Magan—was to set sail on 7 September from the port city of Sur in Oman for the Indian port of Bet Dwarka in Gujarat.

    The international 8-member crew, fueled by $200,000 from the government, will ride the monsoon winds with the intent of following the ancient ocean trade route thought to have linked the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Historians dispute whether India and Oman actively traded in this era, but Indian artifacts such as seals, pottery, and beads have been found in Oman.

    Marine archaeologist Alok Tripathi of the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, says navigation will be done using only the sun and stars. “We hope to learn how Bronze Age mariners coped with oceans,” he says. And the crew will eat what crews of yore ate: dates, cheese, and dried fish.

  3. Surf 'n' Turf

    People living on the coast of Wales 12,000 years ago got about a third of their food from the sea, according to an isotope analysis of their bones. That makes them the earliest people known to have intensively used the ocean for food.

    Shells and fishbones have been found at much earlier human sites, but the bones indicate that seafood formed only a small part of the diet.

    By comparing isotopes of nitrogen and carbon found in the bones of four individuals found at the cliff site known as Kendrick's Cave, Michael Richards, an archaeologist at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues were able to estimate the ratio of terrestrial to marine food in their diets. The data suggest people ate predators at the top of the marine food chain—most likely seals, Richards says.

    The findings, reported in this month's issue of Journal of Human Evolution, reveal an early example of people switching from hunting and gathering to more intensive use of certain food sources, says Richards's team. That was a significant step toward the development of a settled, agricultural lifestyle that began in Britain about 5000 years ago.

    The study makes “a real contribution to our knowledge of Late Glacial adaptations,” says archaeologist Rich Schulting at Queen's University Belfast in Ireland. “The coastline of the time is gone, so finding evidence for if and how marine resources were used is especially challenging.”

  4. Oldest Body to Science


    Barely four hours after the oldest women in the world died at a Dutch nursing home on 30 August, scientists at a nearby university lab had performed an autopsy, discovered that she died of stomach cancer, preserved key body parts, and started a battery of tests that they hope will shed light on why she lived so long.

    Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, 115, decided some 30 years ago that she would donate her body to science, says anatomist and neuroscientist Gert Holstege of the University of Groningen.

    Although her hearing was poor and her vision almost gone, Van Andel-Schipper had remained sharp. She was an ardent soccer fan, and, says Holstege, “she listened to the radio news every hour until she was 113.” Holstege hopes to find that Van Andel-Schipper's brain does not have the brain lesions often seen in the elderly, even those not suffering from dementia. That would help dispel the idea that neurodegeneration is inevitable, he says.

    But aging researcher Thomas Kirkwood of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., is skeptical. “One case doesn't tell you very much” beyond the obvious, he says: that Van Andel-Schipper had “an exceptionally good body for a woman her age.”

  5. Deaths


    An appetite for knowledge. Horace Davenport, the physiologist who discovered what prevents the stomach from digesting itself, died at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on August 29. He was 92.

    Davenport discovered the role of carbonic anhydrase in the parietal cells of the stomach, which led to a better understanding of how the gastro-mucosal barrier works. “Many successful therapies for peptic ulcer today are based on the discovery of this mechanism,” says Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, where Davenport served as a faculty member until 1983.

    Davenport also made a significant contribution to the teaching of physiology by authoring three textbooks, one of which—“The ABC of Acid-Base Chemistry”—has sold over 140,000 copies and is now in its sixth edition.

  6. Pioneers


    Creating connections. Victoria Gray has spent her career collecting the names of creative individuals from all walks of life. Now she's using those contacts to inspire some of the most promising students in the United States.

    Last month, Gray brought four Nobelists, three Pulitzer Prize winners, one U.S. senator, and four dozen other high achievers to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Menlo Park, California, for a weekend with 127 high-school students. The goal of the conference, entitled “Adventures of the Mind,” was to help students maximize their potential by acquainting them with the life stories of great achievers, says Gray, who trained as a lawyer and who lives in Washington, D.C. Invitees including Michael Calderbank of Princeton High School in New Jersey rubbed elbows with the likes of (left to right) Nobelist Leon Lederman, author Amy Tan, and physicist Janet Conrad.

    Gray solicits nominations and selects the students for the meeting—the first was held in Seattle in 2003—with an eye to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The funding comes from private donors, and the mentors volunteer their time. “They know that through me they can reach the right kids and make a difference,” Gray says, “and have fun.”

  7. Jobs

    No more waiting. The head of the Office of Women's Health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has quit over the agency's controversial handling of Plan B, the emergency contraceptive.

    Susan Wood, a biologist who joined FDA in 2000, resigned less than a week after the agency announced another delay on whether to sell Plan B over the counter. The drug is currently available by prescription only. FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford has requested public comments on whether to limit unrestricted sales to older teenagers and adult women.

    But Wood had had enough. “I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence … has been over-ruled,” said Wood in her e-mail, which was released by reproductive health groups. FDA put out a statement calling her departure “unfortunate.”

    Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) called Wood's departure “disturbing” and said it reflects the politicization of the agency.

    Fueling a dream. “A nuclear rocket is required for humans to go to mars,” says nuclear engineer Steven Howe, director of the new Center for Space Nuclear Research in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Howe hopes the center, affiliated with the Idaho National Laboratory and due to open next month, will foster university research to “support the work that will be coming out 10 years from now, hopefully when it's needed” for a Mars mission. But he concedes that nuclear propulsion's future role hinges on NASA's long-awaited exploration plan, expected in September. (In February, the administration cancelled a nuclear-propelled probe mission to Jupiter.) Educating a wary public will be another role for the center, he said.

    Howe, 52, has published work ranging from antiproton studies to high-speed aerodynamics during years at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has also dabbled in science fiction: His novel about a moon base, Honor Bound Honor Born, came out in 1997.

  8. Data Point

    First-year U.S. and foreign graduate physics students, 1990 fall-2003 fall

    Physics upswing. The number of U.S. citizens beginning graduate school in physics rose by 47% from 1998 to 2003, according to a new report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) (http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/ed.pdf). That growing domestic interest contributed to an overall jump of 31%. Foreign student enrollment rose by a more modest 16%, reflecting tougher U.S. visa restrictions after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

    The report also documents the first uptick in 8 years in physics Ph.D.s produced by U.S. universities, as well as a 25% jump since 1999—a 4-decade low point—in the number of bachelor's degrees in physics awarded by U.S. institutions. AIP's Patrick Mulvey suggests it's a result of a stronger job market.