Random Samples

Science  21 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5747, pp. 435
1. Death-Ray Test

In 213 B.C.E., Archimedes made a “death ray,” an ingenious set of mirrors that concentrated the sun's rays onto a Roman fleet, setting the ships aflame and staving off the siege of Syracuse—or so the story goes.

The Discovery Channel's show Mythbusters last year declared this story “busted” after an unsuccessful attempt to replicate the trick. But mechanical engineer David Wallace of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge thought it doable, so this month he assigned it as an exercise to his product-design class. Students built an oak replica of a Roman warship and carefully aligned 127 mirrored tiles, a total of 12 square meters, to focus light on one spot 30 meters away. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes of sunlight, the planks burst into flame.

Although successful, the experiment “demonstrated just how impractical the mirrors are,” because they wouldn't work if the ships moved, says Chris Rorres, a mathematician and Archimedes scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, Kennett Square. Archimedes, famous for his weapons, would most likely have used oversized crossbows to rain pots of a flammable liquid called “Greek fire” onto the ships, he says.

Alcoholism is running rampant in Russia, and a new study points out how dangerously people there satisfy their thirsts.

Russians drink a lot of moonshine, or samogen, which is much cheaper than vodka. Some also drink more dangerous substances including eau de cologne, industrial solvents, cleaning fluids, and fire starters. Indeed, Russian fighter pilots have reportedly crashed because mechanics had drunk their deicer fluid.

Scientists have for the first time tried to analyze what is going down the Russian gullet. Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Vladimir M. Shkolnikov of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostok, Germany, have been studying men aged 25 to 54 in the Siberian industrial city of Izhevsk. They report in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research that a substantial proportion—perhaps 7%—are drinking stuff never meant for consumption, notably medicinal compounds, after-shaves, and cleaning fluids. “These substances are playing an important role in the high level of alcohol-related deaths in Russia,” claims McKee. Life expectancy for Russian males has plummeted to below 59.

Among the researchers' findings: Samogen has less ethanol than does vodka but is contaminated with other alcohols toxic to hearts and livers. Medicinal compounds contain more alcohol than vodka does. And after-shave was almost pure ethanol. According to McKee, Russian after-shaves “are sold in brightly colored quarter-liter bottles, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are primarily produced for drinking.”

3. Telescope Nest

A design has been selected for the building that will house Europe's next big telescope, one with a 50-meter mirror that will dwarf all existing optical scopes.

The winning design, to cost up to €300 million, is by a team from the Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden. “The building is also an instrument; it has to work in tandem with the telescope,” says project director Göran Sandberg. To achieve this, supersensitive temperature controls, separate foundations for the building and the telescope to minimize vibration, and an aerodynamic shape to reduce wind effects are required, he explains.

The new mainly E.U.-funded instrument is still a decade or so away. Where it will be located—the Canary Islands or Chile—and just what it will be are still up in the air. Feasibility studies are being conducted by the European Southern Observatory and a five-country consortium on two designs: an Overwhelmingly Large Telescope called OWL, and an instrument dubbed the Euro50. Boosters say the new telescope will have a resolving power of 2.5 milli-arc seconds—15 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope and enough to discern a dime 1400 kilometers away.

4. In Darwin's Hand

A reproduction of the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree will be on display starting 19 November at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in what the museum describes as “the most in-depth [Darwin] exhibition ever mounted.” It will go on through next May.

5. Jobs

EPA bound. Toxicologist George Gray, an expert in risk assessment, won approval from a Senate panel last week to lead the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Office of Research and Development. Gray heads the industry-backed Center for Risk Analysis at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston; he succeeded John Graham in 2001 when Graham became the Bush Administration's chief regulatory cop at the Office of Management and Budget. Gray has said EPA's worst case scenarios can distort comparisons of hazards and mislead the public. “What we've learned at nearly every point over the last 30 years is that things like industrial chemicals and pollution were not as dangerous as we originally thought,” Gray told the Detroit News in 2000.

7. Deaths

Fatal fieldwork. Two geophysicists accustomed to the hazards of their profession died 4 October when a logging truck lost its load on a winding, scenic road on the Olympic Peninsula of coastal Washington state.

State seismologist Anthony Qamar, 62, of the University of Washington, Seattle, and geophysicist Daniel Johnson, age 46, of the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, had both worked on the bulging slopes of Mount St. Helens in the spring of 1980 before it blew, killing a volcanologist. An undergraduate then, Johnson would spend much time taking the pulse of other unstable volcanoes around the world. But on the day their vehicle was hit by logs that rolled off a truck in front of them, he and Qamar were simply retrieving GPS equipment that had been monitoring an otherwise undetectable earthquake deep below the boundary of two tectonic plates.