Random Samples

Science  02 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5753, pp. 1421

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  1. Neolithic Cattle Go Wild

    Early cattle installation in Çatalhöyük.CREDIT: JASON QUINLAN/ÇATALHÖYÜK RESEARCH PROJECT

    The 9500-year-old farming settlement of Çatalhöyük, in Turkey, which has spectacular wall paintings and sculptures of bulls, has long been considered the site of the first known domesticated cattle. But a new analysis of cattle bones at the site suggests it's not.

    The claim was based on a 1969 Science paper by the late zooarchaeologist Dexter Perkins, who argued that the bones were not as large as those of wild cattle. But a new team of faunal experts led by Nerissa Russell of Cornell University and Louise Martin of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London has examined 4321 bone pieces. Relying not just on size but also sex and age patterns, which differ between hunted and herded animals, they conclude in the December issue of Current Anthropology that the cattle were wild during at least the first three-quarters of the 1200-year life of the settlement.

    Zooarchaeologist Simon Davis of the Portuguese Institute of Archaeology in Lisbon says the conclusion is “a little strange” in light of recent evidence from Cyprus suggesting that cattle were herded there more than 10,000 years ago, as well as slightly later signs of domestication at other Near Eastern sites. But zooarchaeologist Melinda Zeder of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., says the new findings are “solid” and “more compatible” with the evident symbolic status of the animals, whose horns and skulls adorn many of Çatalhöyük's mud-brick houses. “Elsie the cow hardly makes an impressive cult figure,” she says.

  2. Founder's Message

    Cosmic bulletin board?CREDIT: NASA

    Combing through cosmic radiation could reveal a message from the universe's creator, if it has one, say two physicists.

    According to theory, anyone could make a universe by squashing a lump of matter violently enough to replicate the big bang. And by tweaking something called the inflaton field, the creator—be it a physicist-hacker or a deity—could put a binary message in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. Or so argue Stephen Hsu of the University of Oregon, Eugene, and Anthony Zee of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in a paper at arXiv.org. The message might sit, like cosmic Braille, in the bumps and ripples of the CMB, they say. They calculate that it could hold up to 100,000 bits of information—enough to encode, say, clues to the long-sought grand unified theory that joins all the physical forces. Some people “think we are nuts,” says Hsu. “I think it's a legitimate scientific question.” Telescopes now in the works could detect such a message within 20 years, he says.

    There's a hitch, though, says cosmologist Douglas Scott of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada: Observers in other times or parts of the universe would see different patterns, so the creator would have to specify a time and place for deciphering the bumps.

  3. Attachment Chemistry

    Evidence has been growing that emotional deprivation early in life can permanently change people's brains. Now a group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, reports that children who suffered early neglect in orphanages have deficiencies in hormones related to attachment.

    The hormones—oxytocin, whose levels increase with warm physical contact with a familiar person, and vasopressin, which plays a role in recognizing familiar people—are hard to measure. But psychologist Seth Pollak and colleagues say they have devised a way to get measurements from urine, making it possible to test small children.

    Eighteen tots who had spent an average of 16 months in orphanages before adoption were compared with 21 children raised by their biological parents. Over a 2-week period, each child had two cuddly 30-minute play sessions, one with his or her mother and one with an unfamiliar woman. The researchers found that in the family-reared children, oxytocin levels increased after contact with the mother, but not with the stranger. But oxytocin levels never went up in the orphans, who also had lower baseline vasopressin levels, the researchers reported last week in the 22 November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, says the report is consistent with not only animal evidence but also evidence that children with autism—who avoid social interactions—also lack oxytocin responses. If the urine-sampling method proves valid, he says, “it could jump-start a new approach to clinical studies.”

  4. Merry Christmas, Kansas


    Now that the Kansas Board of Education has redefined “science” to include the supernatural, this paleontology game's makers are fighting back, offering a 20% discount to anyone in Kansas. Bone Wars (http://www.zygotegames.com/) teaches players how to form and test hypotheses as they pretend to be “ruthless paleontologists” from the late 1800s U.S. “Dinosaur Rush.”

  5. Politics


    One degree too hot? Just a year after taking office, Ireland's first national science adviser, Barry McSweeney, has been transferred to a new job in light of a controversy over alleged flaws in his résumé. McSweeney had described himself as a “biochemist” with a Ph.D. from Pacific Western University (PWU) in Los Angeles, California. Questions about his credentials arose after an investigation last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) named PWU as one of several “diploma mills” that give degrees based on life experience rather than coursework. PWU, for example, offered to sell a Ph.D. to a GAO investigator for $2595 (www.gao.gov/new.items/d04771t.pdf).

    McSweeney, 55, has two degrees that haven't been challenged: a bachelor's from the University of Cork and a master's from Trinity College, Dublin. Before becoming science adviser, he directed a joint research center for the European Union, overseeing a staff of 2500 in four countries. Last week, he moved to a research manager's job in the Irish Department of Communications, Marine, and Natural Resources.

    “Nobody questioned [McSweeney's] ability or enthusiasm,” says Conor O'Carroll of the Irish Universities Association in Dublin, but O'Carroll says some people felt his résumé was not a good advertisement for Irish science. McSweeney's former office issued a statement saying he was “pleased” with his new job but that he would not comment further.

  6. Face Offs


    Wielding the knife. If you can't cure it, cut it. That appears to be how the National Cancer Institute is dealing with a pain-inducing newsletter that has criticized NCI chief Andrew von Eschenbach.

    Last week, NCI cancelled its subscription to The Cancer Letter, an independent journal in Washington, D.C., that has published some scathing articles on NCI leaders, including recent allegations that von Eschenbach has a conflict of interest because he is trying to direct NCI and the Food and Drug Administration at the same time (Science, 7 October, p. 29). The Cancer Letter publisher Kirsten Goldberg and editor Paul Goldberg—a husband-wife team—say NCI's cancellation of its site license means a loss of 600 dedicated readers at the institute and a $48,000 revenue loss that will force the journal to cut costs.

    The cancellation of The Cancer Letter and two other “nonscientific” newsletters is “due to budgetary constraints,” says NCI spokesperson Nicole Saiontz, and not because of any unhappiness with its coverage. NCI employees will still be permitted to use program funds for subscriptions, she says.

    But as one staffer notes, NCI could end up spending more than it saves if a lot of scientists take that approach.

  7. Awards

    Nation's pride. Economist Kenneth Arrow, plant pathologist Norman Borlaug, and biochemist Phillip Sharp—all Nobel laureates—are among the eight winners of the 2004 National Medal of Science, announced by the White House last month. The other winners are transplant surgeon Thomas Starzl of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, chemist Stephen Lippard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, biochemical engineer Edwin Lightfoot of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, mathematician Dennis Sullivan of Stony Brook University in New York, and geochemist Robert Clayton of the University of Chicago.

    The White House also named two individuals and five companies as winners of the 2004 National Medal of Technology: Ralph Baer for his pioneering role in the development of interactive video games; Roger Easton for contributions to spacecraft tracking, navigation, and timing technology; Gen-Probe Inc. for developing new blood testing technologies; the microelectronics division of IBM for advances in semiconductors; Industrial Light and Magic for innovations in visual effects technology; Motorola for leadership in the communications industry; and Paccar Inc. for developing and commercializing aerodynamic, lightweight trucks.

  8. Checking In


    Political science. Working on biodiversity issues at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Institutes of Health, botanical systematist Francesca Grifo learned that policymaking is often guided by factors other than peer-reviewed science. She hopes to reduce the chances of that happening as director of a new permanent program on scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

    Grifo most recently worked as a policy instructor at Columbia University and curator of the American Museum of Natural History. She came to UCS this fall to make science a stronger force in the political arena. “Just because you're right and just because you have your data doesn't mean science takes the day,” she says. Among the challenges she wants to tackle are inadequate protections for whistleblowers, questionable appointments to federal scientific advisory boards, and the role of science in decision-making. To those who label UCS as partisan and liberal, she says “we're focusing on this Administration because that's what's happening now.”