Random Samples

Science  16 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5742, pp. 1812
  1. Egypt in China

    The priestess Thenu, whose sarcophagus was made from a hollowed-out palm tree.

    Scholars in Beijing have unearthed ancient Egyptian treasures, collected by a diplomat of China's last emperor, that have lain forgotten for almost a century.

    In 1906, ambassador Duan Fang, an antiquarian of some renown, purchased a number of Egyptian artifacts while passing through Cairo. In 1911, he was assassinated; his collection was later bought by the Chinese government.

    Three years ago, Willy Clarysse of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and Yan Haiying of Beijing University found some Egyptian funerary stelae with hieroglyphic texts in the Museum of Beijing University, registered under the name of Duan Fang. That set off a hunt for the rest of the collection. They ultimately found three sarcophagi, some 50 stone slabs, and more than 60 rubbings made from them at the museum, as well as in the storerooms of the Forbidden City and the National Library. The stelae range from the Old Kingdom to the early Christian Coptic period and have never been published, says Clarysse. He adds that most of the stelae are actually casts, but inscriptions by Duan Fang suggest that the originals must be somewhere in China: “So the search for the originals has just started.”

  2. Crème de la Crème

    A stratospheric IQ predicts more worldly success than just a superhigh one, say researchers. That, they say, undermines the “threshold effect”: the notion that IQ scores above, say, 130 don't matter because at those levels, other traits such as motivation and creativity distinguish people.

    Scientists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, looked at the careers of precocious youths who had aced the math SAT, an IQ-like test, at the age of 13. Using data collected when the subjects were 33, the researchers compared the top and bottom quartiles—covering about 1000 subjects—of those who scored in the top 1% of the math SAT on four indicators: advanced degrees, salaries, patents, and tenure at a top U.S. university.

    In a paper in press at the Journal of Educational Psychology, the researchers report that the top quartile usually come out ahead: 32.1% got Ph.D.s, compared with 20% in the bottom quartile. For patents, it was 7.5% versus 3.8%; for tenure, 3.2% versus 0.4%. The highest scorers also made more money. The findings make sense in view of the fact that “the top 1% contains one-third of the ability range,” says Vanderbilt's David Lubinski. For example, everything over 137 is in the top 1% of IQ scores, but IQs can go beyond 200.

    Psychologist Joseph Renzulli of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, a proponent of the threshold effect, says he remains unconvinced. “Unless we can draw a perfect relationship between cognitive ability and creative productivity” in a wide range of people of above-average ability, “we must assume” that other factors are critical, he says.

  3. A Choir of Wrens


    The plain-tailed wrens of Ecuador may not look like much. But they do something unique in the bird world: synchronized antiphonal chorusing. Researchers have found that small groups of male and female wrens sing in such perfectly timed, alternating tweets that what emerges sounds like a call from a single bird.

    A team led by Peter Slater, an ornithologist at St. Andrews University in Fife, U.K., found tight groups of the wrens singing in the underbrush during a 2002 survey in the Andes. Extensive subsequent recordings and observations, reported online 7 September in Biology Letters, revealed that each sex has a repertoire of about 20 phrases. When they sing together, members of each sex spontaneously choose the same two phrases, creating songs that can last up to 2 minutes. As many as seven birds can sound like a single chirper.

    The reason for this complex vocalization is a mystery. One possibility is that, because the male and female wrens look alike—common in tropical birds—the group effort helps coordinate mating. Another is that the amplified song scares off intruders. The feathered choirs may help us understand how bird species acquire new songs, says Katharina Riebel, an ornithologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands. (For a sample song, go to sciencenow.sciencemag.org/feature/data/Plain-tailed-wren.wav)

  4. Renewables in the Doldrums

    New figures from the Department of Energy show that despite billions in research into renewable energy sources over the past 3 decades, fossil fuels remain king.

    Growth of renewables is stagnant. In the United States, 45% of renewable power comes from hydroelectric facilities. Solar energy contributed less than 0.1% of total energy consumption last year, and wind energy, despite tripling its contribution since 2000, remains a similarly minute fraction. Proponents of renewable energy sources say such sources could benefit from skyrocketing oil prices, but that government subsidies—which have helped the fossil fuel and nuclear industries—are needed to spur investment.

  5. Survivors


    Weathering Katrina. For 10 days after Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans, Louisiana, zoo veterinarian Elizabeth Hammond slept in the reptile house and helped the zoo's 1500 animals cope with the disaster. She tended to an injured flamingo, helped evacuate 11 sea lions and otters to Texas due to fears that the zoo's water supply might be contaminated, and assisted in feeding the zoo's skeletal staff as well as its permanent residents. “It's a daily struggle, just providing for these animals,” she said last week by cell phone from New Orleans.

    Situated on high ground, the zoo escaped flooding but lost power before switching to a generator. Thanks to emergency plans, the zoo had several days' worth of supplies on hand. National Guard members living in dry zoo buildings are currently helping keep the zoo stocked.

    Hammond, 31, eventually took a breather by driving to her family's home in Kentucky. But she plans to return to help the zoo survive.

  6. Politics


    Back in the fold. Three years after cutting ties with its Iranian members, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) this week sent its president-elect to mend fences. Michael Lightner will reestablish the society's Iran section during his visit to Tehran and Shiraz, building upon a May ruling by the U.S. Department of Commerce that allows IEEE to recognize members in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan—countries under a U.S. trade embargo.

    IEEE still can't provide the section with any money, equipment, or services. But it can sponsor conferences and other events. The trip should help reduce the ill feeling caused by the society's 2002 decision to withdraw membership benefits (Science, 19 September 2003, p. 1646), says Farokh Marvasti, director of the Advanced Communications Research Center at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. But IEEE's inability to fund events organized by the Iran section makes the visit mostly a symbol of a better future, he says.

    Changing environment. Iran's new president has brought a second scientist, and the first woman, into his inner circle. Last week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad named paleontologist Fatemeh Javadi as one of nine new vice presidents in his cabinet. (Last month, mathematician Mohammad-Mehdi Zahedi was named science minister.) Some observers view the appointment of Javadi, a professor at the University of Shiraz, as an encouraging sign that Ahmadinejad's conservative views may not block progress by Iranian women in the scientific workforce. Javadi's main responsibility is to oversee the state Environmental Protection Organization.

  7. Awards


    Love's reward. It's said that love and work don't mix. But don't tell that to population biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant. This month, the married couple from Princeton University in New Jersey won an $800,000 International Balzan Foundation prize for their 30-year study of the finches on the Galápagos Islands.

    Married since 1962, the couple has avoided conflicts by carving out specialties within their field. “She is the expert on behavior and bird song, while I focus on measuring phenotypes,” says Peter. And what will they do with the money? “I have no idea,” says Rosemary, “but we're on cloud nine.”

    The Swiss-based foundation has also honored Russell Hemley and David Mao, mineralogists at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.; Lothar Ledderose, an art historian at Ruprechts Karls University in Heidelberg, Germany; and Peter Hall, a social historian at University College London, U.K.

  8. They Said It

    “[Scientists] are people who by definition live outside the norm, … floating in zones that had never been reached before, … people with strong egos and God complexes. That sounds like rock-n-roll to me.”

    —Publisher Bob Guccione Jr., founder of Spin and soon-to-be owner of Discover magazine, comparing the worlds of music and science last week in The New York Times