Random Samples

Science  03 Mar 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5765, pp. 1223
  1. Desert Outposts

    Meave Leakey with Kenyan grad student Fredrick Kyalo Manthi. CREDIT: ANN GIBBONS

    Famous fossil hunters Richard and Meave Leakey have joined forces with Stony Brook University in New York to build a research institute in the remote desert of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

    The Leakeys and their colleagues have unearthed a stunning series of fossils of early human ancestors at the lake over the past 40 years. Now they aim to set up a modern facility comprising at least two year-round field stations that will serve as a staging ground for fieldwork in the vast badlands around the lake, where fossils date as far back as 65 million years.

    With a permanent institute, “we could triple the amount of time spent in the field and establish an international educational outreach program through satellite links,” says Richard Leakey, a visiting professor of anthropology at Stony Brook since 2002. Another goal is to train and hire African postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. Leakey has raised $1.5 million toward a $20 million goal from three wealthy donors, including Mexican telecommunications mogul Carlos Slim. The university has pledged so far to hire two new faculty members.

  2. Take a Dip in the Fermi Sea

    Nanobot swimmer. CREDIT: AVRON ET AL., NEW J. PHYS., 7 234 (2005)

    Recipe for the ultimate extreme winter sport: Set nanometer-sized robots swimming in a pool chilled to near absolute zero.

    Nanobot swim sprints might not make the Olympics, but in theory they're possible, say mathematical physicists. Joseph Avron, Boris Gutkin, and a colleague at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, had previously studied larger robots swimming in a viscous fluid and decided to see what would happen at the nanoscale. They imagined robots consisting of spheres and rods capable of changing sizes and lengths in rhythmic patterns, in a rough analogy to swimming strokes, immersed in a supercold fluid of particles called fermions, which are described by quantum waves. Wriggling in certain ways, the robots transmit waves of fermions in one direction, pushing themselves in the other. With each “stroke,” a swimmer moves a distance equal to a multiple of half the typical wavelength of the fermions, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of Physical Review Letters. The swimmer also can move without losing energy.

    The analysis may not be practical, but it was conceptually appealing, Avron says: “This is the kind of license a theorist can have.” Leonid Levitov, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, agrees: “[The result] being beautiful is reason enough for doing the work.”

  3. Glass With an Impact


    In December 1932, scientists surveying the southern Egyptian desert came upon pieces of a translucent, pale yellow-green, glassy substance, from tiny fragments to football-sized chunks, scattered over a huge area at the Libyan border. Known as Libyan desert glass, this almost pure silica contained isotopes showing it to be of extraterrestrial origin. But scientists haven't been able to figure out where it came from.

    Now Farouk El-Baz, director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing, believes the mystery has been solved. This month, poring over satellite images of the Sahara Desert, he found a gigantic impact crater in the area. At a diameter of 30 kilometers, it's “the largest crater yet found in the Sahara,” El-Baz says, and big enough to be the source of the glass, which covers a 60- by 100-kilometer area. He believes the crater hadn't been recognized before because it is so big; also, parts of its rims were eroded by two ancient river systems. El-Baz has named the crater, located on the Gilf Kebir plateau, the Kebira. “This is a large crater and well worth scientific investigation,” says Friedrich Horz, a crater expert at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

  4. Rockin' to the Music Genome

    If a band member is like an organ, contributing to the functioning of the whole body, what are the different sounds the band produces? Tim Westergren calls them genes. He's the brain behind the Music Genome Project, designed to “capture the details that collectively describe a piece of music, the same way the genome does for a person.”

    Westergren and some 30 fellow music enthusiasts run a company called Pandora, which analyzes songs according to features, or “genes,” such as instrumentation, lyrics, beat, mood, and type of harmony. So far, they've cataloged about 400 genes, each with different forms: Voice, for instance, has 30 different “alleles,” from urban to sultry. When a visitor to the Web site (http://www.pandora.com/) enters the name of a song, an algorithm runs through all the genomes in the database and creates a playlist of “relatives.”

    The project is “a cute strategy” for analyzing music, says genomicist Elliott Margulies of the National Human Genome Research Institute (who is also the keyboard player in a rock band). “It's like looking at human variation or primate evolution; they're trying to analyze the same genes to look at the variation within music.”

    Westergren says users are sometimes surprised: They'll input a favorite song—say, a mellow Sarah McLachlan tune—and Pandora will come back with a pop hit by Britney Spears. Some people don't like being reminded that humans are related to monkeys either, but the genes don't lie.

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