Science  17 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5840, pp. 879

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    MACHINE MIND. There are no gondolas or Venetian masks in composer Julian Wagstaff's first opera, which premiered in Edinburgh, U.K., this week. Instead, The Turing Test tells the story of two scientists competing to create the ultimate intelligent machine.

    Wagstaff was inspired to create the work after a visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's museum in Cambridge, where he was impressed by an exhibit about the English mathematician Alan Turing's test for human intelligence in a computer. He hopes that the opera will convey the challenges involved in creating a computer that meets the Turing test criteria—namely, that you can't tell the computer from a human when you chat with it via a keyboard. “The biggest hurdle is designing a computer that you can imbue with culture and that can produce natural language,” says Wagstaff, who has worked as a linguist and a computer programmer.


    For the production, Wagstaff collaborated with computer scientists at the University of Edinburgh, where he teaches composition. “It's a highly unusual topic; I can't think of another opera featuring a singing computer,” says Gordon Duckett, administrator of the university's School of Informatics, who had several discussions with Wagstaff. “Julian's raising awareness of how far computing has come and questioning what we mean by artificial intelligence.”


    BIO FALLOUT. A top official at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station has stepped down amid a scandal over biosafety problems that has shut down biodefense research at the school. Richard Ewing, TAMU vice president of research, resigned on 1 August following lapses that have put the school under “tremendous scrutiny,” Ewing wrote in a letter to colleagues.

    TAMU's problems began with its failure to tell the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, that one worker had contracted brucellosis and three others were exposed to Q fever last year. In late June, CDC ordered the school to suspend all research on potential bioweapons pathogens, noting that a Brucella aerosol experiment apparently did not have CDC approval. The Dallas Morning News has since reported that the infected lab worker didn't have approval to work with the agent. Ewing, a tenured professor, will return to the mathematics department on 31 August.


    CANCER FIGHTER. A billionaire cancer survivor is donating another $700 million to combat the disease.

    In 1993, Jon Huntsman Sr. established the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City with his wife, Karen. Since then, he has gifted more than $225 million to it. The new donation will help expand the institute's treatment efforts and research, which focuses on the genetic causes of cancer.

    Huntsman made his fortune developing the polystyrene egg carton and the clamshell Big Mac box. Last month, his current company, the Salt Lake City, Utah-based Huntsman Corp., agreed to a $10.6 billion takeover bid by New York-based Apollo Management.

    “One of two men and one of three women [in the United States] will develop cancer at some point in their lives,” says Huntsman, 70, who has suffered from mouth, nose, and prostate cancer. “Every family will be affected at some point. There's a great need for money for research.”


    NOT SO FAST. Sometimes links to one's home institution can get in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something bigger. That's what happened to oceanographer Mark Abbott of Oregon State University (OSU), Corvallis, who's changed his mind about leading the geosciences directorate at the National Science Foundation after NSF's lawyers told him that his continuing ties to OSU posed an insurmountable obstacle.

    Academics who come to NSF to take up such senior positions typically go on leave from their institution—Abbott is dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences—and then recuse themselves from all pending decisions on grants and other matters involving their school. But that would have been impractical, says Abbott, given the breadth of NSF funding going to the college. “In the end, there would have been so many geoscience programs involved that I couldn't even be in the room” during discussions, he says. And so NSF will resume its search.



    TREASURE TROVE. If you think words like “a total waste of time … will start again” come from the margins of a struggling graduate student's diary, think again. You'll find them—and similar remarks—in the laboratory notebooks of a two-time Nobel laureate and founding father of genomics, Frederick Sanger.

    Last week, the British Biochemical Society received a Wellcome Trust award to catalog and preserve the notebooks—35 in all—in which Sanger recorded his ground-breaking research from 1944 to 1981. The books, which the biologist donated to the society in 2005, describe both the first sequencing of a protein (insulin), which earned Sanger his first Nobel Prize in 1958, and the first sequencing of DNA, for which he shared the Nobel Prize with Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert in 1980.

    “He was a genius at solving practical problems, finding biochemical tricks to get the answer he was looking for,” says Georgina Ferry, who met Sanger while researching her biography of Max Perutz. And yet, “he is the most self-effacing person you could hope to meet.” Sanger retired in 1982 and now spends his time gardening at his Cambridgeshire home.