Random Samples

Science  16 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5755, pp. 1764
1. Giving the Earth a Poke

World's tallest building. The weight of the world's tallest building may have been great enough to trigger earthquakes.

The 101-story Taipei 101, completed in 2003, rises 509 meters over the capital of Taiwan. The tower's 705,132 tons of steel and concrete also exert considerable pressure on the ground below it. So when magnitude-3.8 and -3.2 quakes struck directly beneath the building in late 2004 and early 2005, seismologist Cheng-Horng Lin of Academia Sinica's Institute of Earth Sciences in Taipei took an interest.

The quakes struck a previously unrecognized fault 10 kilometers down that before construction had produced only minor tremors too small to be felt. The building's weight is applied in just the way needed to make the fault slip as it did in 2004, Lin found. “[T]his megastructure might very well have triggered” the quakes, he concludes in a 30 November Geophysical Research Letters paper. The seemingly stressed fault demands close monitoring, he adds.

Human activities such as nuclear explosions and filling water reservoirs have been known to trigger quakes, but a building has never before been fingered. Seismologist Ross Stein of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, says he's not convinced that Taipei 101—“just a woman's high heel on a slightly larger scale”—could cause quakes. The stresses at the base of the building can be quite high, he notes, but they rapidly decay deeper in the earth because the building is so narrow.

2. Still Missing the Mark

Although many states have recrafted their public school science standards in the past 5 years, “we're no better off now than before,” according to a report issued last week by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C. “Science education in America is under attack, with 'discovery learning' on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other.”

The foundation, which supports research on education reform, graded each state based on the clarity and quality of its standards. Seven states, led by California, got an “A.” Virginia was most-improved, rising from a “D” in the foundation's 2000 report to an “A.” Of the 13 that received an “F,” all except New Hampshire are in the South or West.

Lead author of the report is biologist Paul R. Gross, former head of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Gross says the problem with precollege science education is much bigger than the debate over teaching evolution. “Certainly some states do an awful job addressing evolution, but for the most part these states also do an awful job addressing the rest of science,” he says. See http://www.edexcellence.net/ for The State of State Science Standards 2005.

3. Peruvians Pressure Yale on Artifacts

Peruvians want the return of items such as this ritual offering vessel.

Peru has joined the throng of nations seeking the return of native archaeological treasures that reside in foreign museums. The Peruvian government is threatening to sue Yale University for failing to return some 5000 artifacts that renowned researcher Hiram Bingham excavated during three visits to Machu Picchu nearly a century ago.

Bingham was the first foreigner to behold the dramatic site high in the Andes, a stronghold of the Incan empire that was abandoned in the early 16th century. He found troves of mummies, pottery, and sculpture, and with the permission of the Peruvian government, the objects were taken to Yale—but they were supposed to be returned within a few years.

Negotiations have been going on for several years, but with Peruvian elections coming up next April and the centennial of Machu Picchu's 1911 discovery by outsiders approaching, the government is putting the pressure on. “Machu Picchu is a very, very potent symbol for Peru as well as for all native peoples of the Americas,” says Clark Erickson, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Foreign Minister Oscar Maurtua told reporters in Lima last week that although he would prefer an out-of-court settlement, he believes Peru could win in a court battle. Yale spokesperson Thomas Conroy says the university hopes to find a resolution through joint exhibitions of the material in Peru as well as in the United States. Many of Machu Picchu's treasures have been on public display for the first time in a Yale traveling exhibit that opened in 2003.

4. New Species in Borneo?

A mysterious new catlike animal has been glimpsed by cameras set up in the dense central forests of Borneo by researchers from the Swiss World Wildlife Fund (WWF). With dark red fur and a long bushy tail, it may be a type of marten or civet. WWF biologist Stephan Wulffraat said that the animal was unfamiliar to the locals, and wildlife experts were stumped. Researchers hope to nail down its identity by trapping a live one. Although the animal lives in Kayan Mentarang National Park, WWF says plans by the Indonesian government to build a giant palm oil plantation in the area pose a threat to it.

5. Politics

Not in my backyard. You can be too close to a good thing—that's what some residents of Anchorage, Alaska, are saying to a neighbor who wants to put a particle accelerator in his house. Engineer Albert Swank Jr. plans to use the 60-ton, room-sized cyclotron, donated by Johns Hopkins University, to generate radioactive isotopes for a type of medical imaging called positron emission tomography (PET). “I lost my father [to cancer] in 1982,” says Swank, 55, “and I decided at that point to start working on bringing a PET facility to Alaska.” The state currently has two such scanners, Swank says, but must fly in isotopes from Seattle, Washington. Swank, who built his own cyclotron as a teenager, says he also hopes to inspire local students to pursue science by introducing them to the device.

Some residents claim the machine is a radiation hazard. “We'd be pleased as punch to bring this technology to Alaska,” says Allan Tesche, a member of the Anchorage city council, “but it belongs in hospitals and industrial areas.” Tesche says that Swank's plans violate zoning laws, and he has introduced an ordinance that would explicitly forbid home cyclotrons. Swank counters that he already has all the permits required to install the machine in January, perhaps in his garage.

6. Awards

Reality TV. Many television shows about science portray it as a purely rational pursuit. A Belgian TV producer has won a top science communication prize for showing the emotional drama of searching for breakthroughs.

Jos Van Hemelrijck's Overleven—a Flemish play on words meaning “about life” and “survival”—documents the trials and tribulations of the scientific method by trailing a single researcher every week. “We try to follow a false lead and dramatize the disappointment,” he says. Episodes focus on those whose work has an impact on society, such as a stem cell expert and a biologist who trains rats to be minesweepers. Through realistic portrayals of scientific life, Van Hemelrijck says, the series strives to meet the “demand for deeper science.”

For his efforts, Van Hemelrijck shares the European Union's $300,000 Descartes Prize for science communication with Bill Bryson, author of the layman's guide to science, A Short History of Nearly Everything; Swedish medical doctor Carl Sundberg; Danish astrophysicist Anja Andersen; and Michael Seifert, who started the “Children's University” to stimulate scientific interest in German schoolchildren. The E.U. has also named five scientific groups as the winners of its$1.2 million Descartes research prize. Details are at www.cordis.lu/descartes.

7. Rising Stars

Preparing for takeoff. The winners of the Siemens Westinghouse high school competition in math, science, and technology are in. Michael Viscardi (above, right) of San Diego, California, a homeschooled student with a flair for music composition, will receive the $100,000 grand prize for finding elegant and computer-applicable solutions to a complex mathematical problem. Aspiring actress/biologist Anne Lee, a student at Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley, Arizona, and future computer scientist/intellectual property lawyer Albert Shieh, a student at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, share the$100,000 team prize for developing software to analyze high volumes of genetic data.

8. Jobs

New blood for CDC. After 2 years of reorganizing and the loss of many senior scientists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, last month promoted three staffers to key leadership posts in infectious diseases. Rima Khabbaz will direct the National Center for Infectious Diseases, Anne Schuchat will head the National Immunization Program, and Kevin Fenton will lead the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention.

9. On Campus

Attacked. When religious studies professor Paul Mirecki of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, decided to offer a class on creationism, intelligent design, and “other religious mythologies” last month, he knew that his inbox was going to get flooded with nasty e-mails. What he probably didn't expect was a physical beating, followed by the loss of his title as department chair.

The thrashing took place on 5 December, after Mirecki had already canceled his proposed class. He told police that two men in a pickup truck followed him as he was driving to breakfast in rural Douglas County and pummeled him when he got out of his car. Mirecki drove to a hospital, where he was treated for bruises. He told reporters his assailants referred to the controversy during the attack. Police have yet to make any arrests in the case.

Mirecki has come in for intense criticism from politicians and Christian groups not just for proposing the class but also for describing it in an e-mail as “a nice slap” in the “big fat face” of “fundies,” and for many other e-mails containing derogatory remarks about Christians, says university spokesperson Lynn Bretz. On 7 December, at the urging of his colleagues, he stepped down as chair of his department.

The university still hopes to offer Mirecki's proposed course taught by someone else, says Bretz.