Random Samples

Science  09 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5754, pp. 1612
  1. Ape Season Coming Up

    Full-scale model of Giganto. CREDIT: RUSSELL CIOCHON/RECONSTRUCTION BY BILL MUNNS

    Gigantopithecus, a huge ape that went extinct more than 200,000 years ago, is finally starring in its own documentary.

    Anthropologist Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who has studied fossils of the animal for 18 years, says he got backing from the History Channel to do a documentary because a new King Kong movie was in the works. “We're riding on the coattails,” he says.

    The male Gigantopithecus was more than twice the size of the largest known gorilla, weighing close to half a ton and standing more than 3 meters tall. The giant apes prowled the jungles of southern China and northern Vietnam during the Pleistocene, from about 2 million to 300,000 years ago, says Ciochon.

    Giganto, as it is familiarly called, was first identified in 1935 when fossil collector Ralph von Koenigswald found a lower molar for sale as a “dragon's tooth” in a Chinese apothecary shop. Scientists have reconstructed the ape from three lower jaws and about 1000 teeth found at 10 cave sites. They postulated a skull scaled according to the dimensions of living apes and a body roughly 6.5 times the height of the skull.

    “Giganto, the Real King Kong,” which features scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the Senckenburg Museum in Frankfurt, among others, includes views of cave sites in China, Jurassic Park-style animations of the animal, and a high-tech analysis of Giganto's teeth. It will be aired on the History Channel on 15 December, the day after the new King Kong movie debuts.

  2. Earliest Church

    Fish mosaic on church floor. CREDIT: YOTAM TEPPER

    A team of archaeologists last month announced discovery of the remains of a 3rd century church in Israel, possibly the oldest Christian church in the Holy Land.

    The find was made by chance in October by prisoners working on the construction of a new prison in what was once the ancient Roman-Byzantine village of Kefar Otnai, near the biblical Armageddon. Archaeologists subsequently uncovered an elaborate mosaic floor bearing two inscriptions in ancient Greek, geometric patterns, and fish, a Christian symbol predating the cross. Yotam Tepper of the Israel Antiquities Authority says one inscription reveals that a Roman military officer donated money to build the mosaic; the other mentions that a woman donated the table used as an altar in memory of “the god, Jesus Christ.”

    The remains, dated through pottery shards at the site, are “very important to the study of early Christianity in the Holy Land,” because they reflect a time when Christians were still worshipping in secret, says anthropologist Joe Zias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. If the dating is correct, the inscription mentioning the Roman soldier is “perplexing,” notes Zias, because Christianity was not fully recognized by the Roman Empire until the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E.

  3. Physics Society Decides To Stay Physical

    After much deliberation, the American Physical Society (APS) has decided not to change two letters in its name. The society's executive board had been considering changing “physical” to “physics” to avoid confusion with gym teachers and physical therapists. In an e-mail survey of members this summer, 75% of respondents favored the change.

    But “we probably should have gone to our lawyers before going to our members,” says APS official Alan Chodos. Last month, the executive board decided the change would cause too many legal headaches: The society would have to reincorporate and might have to renegotiate contracts. The board opted instead to add “physics” to the APS logo. “The name stays as it was,” says APS president Marvin Cohen, but “you're not going to see it anymore.”

  4. Sign of the Times

    Soaring obesity rates may make it increasingly tough for doctors to give patients their best shot: Standard needles aren't long enough to deliver intramuscular injections to many buttocks, according to researchers at a hospital in Dublin, Ireland. A study of 50 patients found that in two-thirds of them—including almost all the women—the drugs were getting stalled in fat tissue, the researchers said last week at the Chicago meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

  5. In The News

    CREDIT: JESSIE COHEN/SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL ZOO

    Of pandas and people. Reproductive biologist Jo Gayle Howard of the Smithsonian's National Zoo was as proud as any parent would be when Tai Shan, the zoo's 5-month-old panda cub, met the media last week. Howard oversaw panda mom Mei Xiang's artificial insemination, a tricky procedure because of the slim 24- to 48-hour ovulation window. But her work and Mei Xiang's dedication have produced a healthy 10-kg cub, the first to survive past 3 days at the Washington, D.C., zoo.

  6. Movers

    CREDIT: NSERC

    Universal language. After decades of climbing the academic ladder, chemist Suzanne Fortier took a sabbatical this year from Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, to learn Italian at the University of Bologna. But next month, those studies will have to end so that she can run Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The 56-year-old Fortier succeeds Thomas Brzustowski, who is leaving after two 5-year terms as head of the $600-million-a-year granting agency.

    Fortier was the vice president of the council from 1997 to 2002, and she's not planning to make significant changes to the current array of NSERC programs. But she hopes to foster more collaborations among researchers and institutions. “We have to work together if we want to be significant players on the world stage.”

    She also wants to cut red tape. “By doing all we can to be efficient and responsive, [I hope to] facilitate the work of our researchers.”

  7. Awards

    CREDITS: (LEFT) UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PHOTO SERVICES; (RIGHT) DENISE APPLEWHITE/PRINCETON UNIVERSITY OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS

    Shining early. Mathematicians are said to do their best work when young. That's the logic behind the age-40 ceiling for the Fields Medal, the Nobel equivalent for mathematicians. Now Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology, and Research Academy (SASTRA) University in Kumbakonam, India, has moved the clock forward, instituting an annual $10,000 Ramanujan Prize for those 32 or under. Srinivasa Ramanujan grew up in Kumbakonam and died in 1920 at 32.

    Both the inaugural recipients happen to be of Indian heritage: Manjul Bhargava (right), 30, of Princeton University, and Kannan Soundararajan (left), 31, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The pair is cited for pioneering work in number theory: Bhargava for composition laws in the arithmetic of algebraic number fields and Soundararajan for the Riemann zeta function and related problems in analytic number theory. They will receive the prize in Kumbakonam on 22 December, Ramanujan's birthday.

  8. Politics

    Fished out. Fisheries biologist Michele DeHart thought she was just doing her job when her Fish Passage Center came out in support of a federal court's ruling to help salmon by spilling extra water from dams on the Snake River. But her memo last summer so rankled Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) that he persuaded Congress last month to yank the $1.1 million in federal funding that supports the 12-person agency.

    The Portland, Oregon-based center has been monitoring salmon health in the Pacific Northwest region for 22 years. DeHart, 55, says she's “really got a problem” with Craig's statement on the Senate floor last month that suggested the center's data was tainted by advocacy. “Sometimes in resource management you might not like the way the data turn out,” says DeHart. “But that really falls into killing the messenger.”

    Dan Whiting, a spokesperson for Craig, says his boss thinks the center crossed the line with its memo regarding a court order that will cost utility companies millions of dollars. “There's a difference between data collection and advocacy,” Whiting says.

    But DeHart contends that the memo's language is simply factual and is based on objective data and analysis. And after all, she says, “it's generally a good idea to implement a court order. I've been just shocked and surprised that this kind of thing actually does happen in the legislative process.”

  9. They Said It

    “[John F. Kennedy] didn't know a gene from a chromosome, … [but] he wanted to know all the facts. It was a golden age for science.”

    —Theodore Sorensen, a longtime aide to the Democratic president, speaking last week at the 60th anniversary of the Federation of American Scientists. He was comparing attitudes toward science in the Kennedy Administration and in the current White House.