Random Samples

Science  08 Jun 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5830, pp. 1401

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    Chadwick letter to the Royal Society. CREDIT: CORBIS; ROYAL SOCIETY

    Recently unsealed documents from World War II illustrate that French physicists had an early lead in the race to produce a nuclear reactor. The papers were given to Britain's Royal Society for safekeeping in 1940 and 1941 by James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron and leader of Britain's wartime nuclear research. The society opened them to honor the 75th anniversary of Chadwick's Nobel Prize-winning discovery.

    In the papers, French citizens Hans von Halban and Lew Kowarski discuss how to make a nuclear reactor and generate plutonium. Before fleeing to Britain, the pair worked in Paris with Frédéric Joliot-Curie. After German scientists discovered nuclear fission in 1939, the three realized it should be possible to make a reactor to generate power and patented the idea.

    Halban and Kowarski likely gave the papers to Chadwick to establish the priority of their findings, says Chadwick biographer Andrew Brown, a research fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. During the war, researchers couldn't publish results for fear of revealing secrets, and many looked to Chadwick, known for his integrity, to keep tabs on their work. Ironically, Brown says, Chadwick took a dim view of priority squabbles: “He thought that people shouldn't be concerned with their reputations when the survival of the country was at stake.”


    The first-ever survey of the scientific knowledge of county-level bureaucrats in China indicates that if the Asian giant is going to take over the world, a little more homework is called for.

    Last year, 945 civil servants in 17 provinces and municipalities took the test. Only 12.2% passed. Respondents were required to choose the right definitions for seven scientific terms, correctly judge the truth of at least 10 of 22 scientific statements, and not hold any superstitions.

    Almost two-thirds were able to choose correct definitions for terms such as “molecule,” “DNA,” and “Internet” and to correctly rate 10 of 22 statements (such as “the father determines a child's sex”) as true or false. But only 36% picked correct definitions for “probability,” “controlled experiment,” and “scientific research.” The survey also showed that more than half believed in superstitions, such as fortune-telling by reading the face (held by 28%).

    “Civil servants should take the lead in promoting national scientific literary,” says Cheng Ping of the China National School of Administration, which announced the results of the survey last month. Civil servants, along with young people, farmers, and urban laborers, are targets of China's new National Scheme for Scientific Literacy. In a similar survey of the general population in 2003, only 2% passed.


    Coelacanth caught in April. CREDIT: E. M. MACHUMU

    The coelacanth, a rare fish that hasn't changed significantly in 300 million years, seems to be popping up all over. So much, in fact, that it's in danger of being overfished. On 11 June in Dar es Salaam, scientists and officials will meet to discuss creating a Coelacanth Marine Protected Area near Tanga in northern Tanzania.

    Equipped with an oil-filled spine and limblike fins, the coelacanth can weigh more than 100 kilograms. It was thought to be extinct until a live one was discovered off South Africa in 1938. Although specimens have been found up and down the East African coast and even in Indonesia, the main population was thought to be in the Comoros Islands. But in the past 3 years, many more—32 so far—have been caught off Tanzania, most of them in Tanga, 800 km north of the Comoros. “It looks like more coelacanths have survived than people initially thought,” says marine biologist Eric Verheij, acting director of the Nature Conservancy's Palau office, who was the first to identify a Tanga coelacanth.

    The ancient fish started showing up in wide-mesh gill nets that were laid to catch sharks at depths of 40 to 200 meters when shrimp trawlers were operating nearby. Anthony Ribbink, head of the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme in Grahamstown, South Africa, says they are now being killed at a “quite frightening” rate. At the meeting in Dar es Salaam, the discussions will center on how to get the fishermen to lay their shark nets elsewhere.

  4. NETWATCH: Molecular Home Movies

    The new Protein Movie Generator (PMG) provides an online studio for budding scientific Walt Disneys. Produced by two researchers at the University of Paris, the site makes it easy to create animations that put molecules in motion.

    PMG starts with files from the Protein Data Bank or trajectories from molecular simulations. Users can then script simple scenarios, such as an enzyme pirouetting to display its active site, or more complex maneuvers, such as a ligand gliding in to dock with its receptor. If you prefer stills, you can use PMG to craft molecular graphics. This illustration, for instance, bares some of the internal structure of triosephosphate isomerase, one of the sugar-slicing enzymes of glycolysis.