News this Week

Science  09 May 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5877, pp. 728

    Going From RAGS to Riches Is Proving to Be Very Difficult

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Ray Mellado welcomes contributions to the nonprofit organization he founded 2 decades ago to encourage U.S. Hispanics and other students of color to pursue careers in science and engineering. But the retired Xerox sales executive is wary of an offer from Chinese investors to nearly double the $4 million budget of the Los Angeles-based organization (called HENAAC). They want it to expand its program to rural China in hopes of encouraging students there to pursue technical careers. The offer is a reminder about how much the rest of the world values science, Mellado told an overflow crowd of 450 educators, lobbyists, government officials, and industrial leaders assembled last week in Washington, D.C. “I think we'll see more of that,” he said.

    Viva technology!

    Middle school students in Ohio learn about aerodynamic principles from NASA scientists as part of a HENAAC program.


    Mellado's prediction capped a day of handwringing about the state of the U.S. scientific enterprise. The meeting was held to assess the country's response to a 2005 report by the U.S. National Academies titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (RAGS).

    A parade of speakers gave the federal government failing grades for not heeding the recommendations in RAGS for bigger research budgets, more undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships, changes in immigration policy, and an improved environment for innovation (Science, 21 October 2005, p. 423). “We have … attract[ed] substantial bipartisan support for the notion of investing in research,” notes Robert Berdahl, president of the 60-member Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., citing passage last summer of the America COMPETES Act, a nonbinding promise to fund many of the recommendations in the report (Science, 10 August 2007, p. 736). “But we've made no progress in making it a reality. It's a failure of leadership by both the White House and Congress, and it's very disappointing.”

    Much of that disappointment stems from the last-minute collapse in December of plans to give several science agencies double-digit increases in 2008 (Science, 4 January, p. 18). So meeting organizers tried to rally support for adding up to $900 million to the current budgets of the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. President George W. Bush opposes the idea—now pending in Congress as part of a supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—even though he asked for the entire amount more than a year ago as part of his American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). And three Cabinet secretaries delivered the Administration's message that the Democratic-led Congress is to blame for failing to fully fund ACI. Still, the bipartisan appeal of innovation was evident as seven legislators, representing both parties, described their faith in the country's ultimate ability to compete in a global economy.

    The exception to that gloomy report card may be efforts to improve precollege science and math education, with an emphasis on improving the skills of middle and high school teachers. Much of the progress is due to private funding substituting for the proposed government increases. “We couldn't afford to wait for the federal government to act,” says Tom Luce, a retired Dallas lawyer and former Department of Education official who is chief executive officer of the National Math and Science Initiative. NMSI, a $140 million effort funded principally by the ExxonMobil Foundation, underwrote last week's meeting.

    Last fall, NMSI gave grants to 12 university-based programs to replicate an approach developed at the University of Texas, Austin, called UTeach that draws math and science majors into teaching careers (Science, 1 June 2007, p. 1270). Some 52 institutions applied for the 5-year, $2.4 million awards, which Luce sees as resounding support for the idea of scaling up something that has been shown to work. But Luce says that federal dollars—the COMPETES legislation authorizes $150 million a year for the UTeach effort—are needed to take the program nationwide and begin to reverse the huge problem of sending science and math teachers into classrooms with inadequate preparation in those fields.

    The higher education community seemed especially disappointed that the report's warning of a “gathering storm” hasn't stirred public interest in strengthening U.S. science, as the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik did a little more than 50 years ago. Even the popular idea of a national project to achieve clean energy independence, as Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) proposed at the meeting, hasn't resonated with the public, notes C. D. “Dan” Mote, president of the University of Maryland, College Park, and a member of the panel that produced the Gathering Storm report.

    “The country responds to a crisis, preferably one involving national security,” says Mote. “But the country doesn't see a crisis. Congress doesn't see a crisis. People complain about $4-a-gallon gasoline, but nobody sees the connection to not developing enough alternative energy technologies. They blame it on not drilling in ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] or on gasoline taxes.” Mote says that the cost of the recently passed economic stimulus package—$168 billion in checks of up to $600 to taxpayers—“could pay for RAGS for a decade. As it is, the money doesn't do a damn thing about the underlying problem.”

    That shortsightedness also bothered veteran CBS reporter Bob Schieffer, who moderated an opening panel. “Is our way of life so good that we have forgotten how we got here?” he wondered. Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel and another co-author of the Gathering Storm report, replied with a stinging indictment of the current political system. “There will be winners and losers,” he replied, “and the losers are the ones who insist on looking backwards.” Mellado believes that he has met the people who are looking ahead, and it worries him.


    Ancient Algae Suggest Sea Route for First Americans

    1. Michael Balter

    Evidence is rapidly accumulating that the first Americans came from Asia and spread throughout the New World by at least 14,000 years ago (Science, 4 April, p. 37). But did they come by land or by sea? A paper on page 784 of this issue provides some support for the hypothesis that they took the coastal route rather than traveling inland. At the least, the report provides strong evidence that the earliest Americans used algae and other marine resources for food and medicine, and it seems to clinch early dates for one of archaeology's most controversial sites.

    The paper “provides a nice seaweed garnish” for the coastal hypothesis, says archaeologist Jon Erlandson of the University of Oregon, Eugene, one of its leading proponents. Geoarchaeologist Michael Waters of Texas A&M University in College Station agrees, adding that the coastal route allowed “for the very rapid movement of people from North to South America.”

    For the past 30 years, archaeologist Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and his Chilean and American co-workers have been excavating at the southern Chilean site of Monte Verde. The site is replete with evidence of long-term occupation such as huts, tents, and hearths and was previously radiocarbon-dated to 14,200 to 14,600 years ago. Thus, the site has been pivotal to claims that humans arrived in the Americas before the 13,000-year-old Clovis culture, although some researchers challenged the ancient dates.

    At the water's edge.

    This sandy Pacific coastline was one source of seaweed, which was found in what may have been an ancient medicinal hut (excavated foundation, inset) at Monte Verde, Chile.


    Most recently, while sifting through previously excavated sediments from hearths and floors, the team recovered the remains of nine species of marine algae plus three stone tools. One tool had seaweed remains on its working edge. Direct radiocarbon dates on two of the seaweed samples both clocked in at about 14,000 years.

    The new dates “remove any lingering doubts about the antiquity of human presence at that site,” says archaeologist Daniel Sandweiss of the University of Maine, Orono, who had earlier counted himself among Monte Verde's skeptics (Science, 22 October 1999, p. 657).

    Back 14,000 years ago, Monte Verde was located about 90 kilometers east of the sandy Pacific coast and 15 kilometers north of a rocky-shored inland marine bay. Algae from both environments were recovered, including inedible species that are today used as medicines in Chile and elsewhere. Moreover, the algal species found are known to flourish at different times of the year, suggesting to Dillehay's team that the Monte Verdeans were intimately familiar with coastal resources—possibly because they had originally arrived in the region via that route. Erlandson agrees: “The variety of seaweeds implies a pretty deep knowledge of coastal ecosystems and a long history of exploiting them.”

    Yet the people of Monte Verde also consumed a wide variety of inland plants, including wild potatoes. “There is logic on the side of a coastal route,” says Sandweiss, but “it's impossible to say as yet” whether these ancient people might have arrived overland and discovered the bounties of the sea later. Dillehay concedes that this issue is unresolved: “Monte Verde just raises more questions and issues,” he says. “We need more data.”


    Genome Speaks to Transitional Nature of Monotremes

    1. Elizabeth Finkel*
    1. Elizabeth Finkel is a writer in Melbourne, Australia.

    Zoologists have always thought that the platypus was a missing link in the chain between reptiles and mammals. The furry beaverlike mammal lays small, round, leathery eggs from a reptilelike cloaca, and the hatchlings slurp milk from modified sweat glands off the mother's stomach. Now an analysis of the genome reveals how platypus DNA is also an amalgam of mammalian and reptilian features. Wes Warren of the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and 100 authors describe these features in the 8 May issue of Nature.

    Mammals divide into three groups. Most—from whales to shrews—are eutherians with highly developed placentas. Some are marsupials, which, like kangaroos and opossums, give birth to and then provide milk for immature young outside the womb. The platypus and its cousins, the echidnas, are all that remains of the monotremes, which branched from the marsupials and eutherians some 166 million years ago. “If there is something between reptiles and mammals, it's monotremes,” says Stephen O'Brien of the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland.

    Scales, feathers, then fur.

    As a monotreme, the platypus (above) represents a separate, older branch of the mammalian family tree and has avian- and reptilianlike genetic features.


    The new genome sequence confirms the ancient split between monotremes and other mammals. “It's a missing part of the big evolutionary genetics puzzle,” O'Brien adds.

    The clearest traces of the journey from reptile to mammal come from tracking the yolk and milk genes. Chickens have three vitellogenin egg yolk genes; the platypus has just one left. But the casein milk protein genes that mammals have but reptiles don't are all there. And just as in other mammals, in platypus, they are clustered next to the tooth enamel genes from which they are thought to have evolved, the researchers report.

    The story of the platypus' march away from the reptilian world is also told in the sex chromosomes. According to Jenny Graves of the Australian National University in Canberra, sex chromosome-wise, “they do it like a chicken.” Typically, male mammals have X and Y sex chromosomes, with the Y chromosome carrying a male sex-determining gene called SRY. Male birds have two Z chromosomes, which carry a gene called DMRT1 that is involved in male gender determination in fruit flies, humans (although it's not on the Y chromosome), and, most likely, birds. At first, cytologists thought the platypus was like the mammal: It had X and Y chromosomes, albeit five pairs of them, and it was thought that they were essentially humanlike. Then in 2004, Graves's lab discovered that one of these “X” chromosomes carried DMRT1. The genome sequence now shows that one of the platypus X chromosomes (X5) has more than just that one bird gene: It's almost entirely equivalent to the chicken Z chromosome. “We suspect DMRT1 is involved in the platypus sex determination,” says Frank Grützner, Graves's former postdoc, who now heads a lab at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

    Gene regulation also seems to be more primitive, as platypus genes do not show parental imprinting. In marsupials and eutherians, imprinted genes are dialed to different settings and sometimes shut down altogether, depending on whether they originated from the male's sperm or the female's egg. According to Andrew Pask and Marilyn Renfree of the University of Melbourne, the distribution of repetitive DNA elements in this monotreme may explain the difference. As in other mammals, about 50% of the platypus genome is comprised of repetitive DNA. But although these repeats pepper imprinted genes in marsupials and man, they are largely absent from the equivalent genes in platypus. “Repetitive elements may have been useful for establishing imprinting in the other mammals,” Pask suggests.

    Another feature the platypus shares with reptiles is that it makes venom, which it delivers from a hind leg spur. The genome analysis indicates that, like snake and lizard venom, platypus venom appears to have evolved from antimicrobial genes known as defensins. However, according to Kathy Belov of the University of Sydney, the platypus genes evolved independently.

    A big surprise is the platypus's large endowment of a particular class of vomeronasal receptor genes—about 1000 of them—based on the analysis by Doron Lancet and Tsviya Olender of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. “A typical mammal has a couple of hundred of them,” says Lancet. Unlike olfactory receptors, which detect only airborne compounds, these receptors are more like nasal taste buds, able to detect nonvolatile compounds. For instance, dogs taste pheromones in urine by touching their tongue to the vomeronasal organ in their upper palate. Because the platypus spends 90% of its time in water, Lancet speculates that the platypus uses these receptors for detecting water-soluble odorants.

    “Looking at the venom, egg, and milk genes is really interesting, but as with comparisons between opossum, mouse, and human genomes, the protein-coding sequences don't explain the interesting developmental transitions,” notes John Mattick of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Differences in gene regulation, most likely, provide the answer. And in this respect, the platypus researchers still have their work cut out for them, he adds: “[Gene regulation] information is there but is not yet understood.”


    States Push Academic Freedom Bills

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Ben Stein has helped intelligent design proponents in their efforts to dethrone Darwin.


    If creationism is a mutating virus, as many educators believe, then its latest guise is legislation to protect “academic freedom.”

    Politicians in five U.S. states are pushing bills to enable educators to teach alternatives to evolution by protecting their “right” to discuss with students the idea of intelligent design (ID). Last week, scientists in Florida heaved a sigh of relief when the state legislature adjourned without reconciling differing versions of a bill seen as promoting ID. Similar legislation appears to have a good chance of passing in Louisiana, however, and is gathering steam in Missouri. Bills have also been introduced in Alabama and Michigan.

    The language in the bills is modeled on a statute drafted by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, a prominent ID think tank. “They provide a permission slip for teachers to teach creationism—as long as it's called ‘science,’” says Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. “If any one of them passes, it is going to be very encouraging to creationists in other states.” Backers are hoping for a lift from a current movie with actor Ben Stein, called Expelled, that accuses scientists of silencing those who question evolutionary theory.

    In Florida, ID supporters lobbied for a bill that would protect teachers from being “disciplined, denied tenure, terminated, or otherwise discriminated against for objectively presenting scientific views regarding biological or chemical evolution.” On 23 April, the state Senate passed it by a vote of 21 to 17. But the House sponsor, D. Alan Hays, replaced the Senate language with a single line that instead would require public schools to provide “a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.” Hays's legislative assistant, Tiffany Rousseau, told Science that the change was made due to fears that conferring protection upon teachers “might be unconstitutional.”

    On 28 April, the House voted 71-43 in favor of Hays's legislation. But attempts at reconciliation failed. Senator Ronda Storms, who sponsored the bill, told the Florida Baptist Witness that “the House vehicle [had] veered off of the sure path to our destination.”

    In Louisiana, state senators voted unanimously that the state school board should promote “open and objective discussion of scientific theories … including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” A House committee was expected to take up the measure this week.

    “It has been difficult to rally opposition,” says Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. Forrest and other educators have formed the Louisiana Coalition for Science in a bid to block the legislation. Backers of the bill include the conservative Louisiana Family Forum.

    Groups opposed to teaching creationism are likely to challenge any proposal that becomes law. But they would prefer to defeat the movement earlier. “One can reasonably conclude that the freedom [these bills] are trying to empower teachers with is to present the same material that was found unconstitutional in the Dover case, namely intelligent design,” says Eric Rothschild, who represented the plaintiffs in their suit against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board (Science, 6 January 2006, p. 34). But mounting a judicial challenge could be a costly and time-consuming process, Rothschild warns: “It's always better for bad laws to be avoided by legislators themselves.”


    Chinese Province Crafts Pioneering Law to Thwart Biopiracy

    1. Richard Stone
    Shared heritage.

    Who should own the rights to rare rice varieties in Guizhou's terraced hills, or to Hmong costumes?


    GUIYANG, CHINA—Two years ago, a Chinese company hit upon a winner. The company planned to market a kind of sweet, sticky rice that Kam (Dong) people have cultivated for generations, without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers, on the terraced hillsides of southern China's Guizhou Province. That was the beginning of an entrepreneurial success story—especially for the Kam. Provincial legal experts intervened, helping Kam chieftains trademark the rare organic rice varieties and forcing the company and others to negotiate deals to return a percentage of profits to the Kam.

    Guizhou officials are now hoping to build on this concept and head off any future attempts at “biopiracy”—the plunder of natural resources—by enshrining the protection of indigenous knowledge into law. Guizhou Intellectual Property Office (GIPO) in Guiyang, the provincial capital, has dispatched experts to enclaves of Kam, Hmong (Miao), and other ethnic minorities to assemble a compendium of know-how—from medicinal plants to embroidery techniques—that may merit legal protection. Such communities were once isolated and had no need to worry about theft of their traditional knowledge, says Long Yu-Xiao, director of the Chinese Institute for Indigenous Knowledge and Culture Property at Guizhou University in Guiyang. Globalization has changed that, he says. “Pandora's box is open.”

    Long and other experts are helping GIPO draft China's first legislation that would treat indigenous knowledge as intellectual property (IP). Their inspiration is the 15-year-old Convention on Biological Diversity, or biodiversity treaty, which seeks to balance innovation with the protection of biodiversity and fair compensation for traditional knowledge sources. “The legislation is not idealism, it's not romantic. It's realistic,” says Li Fayao, Long's deputy and a researcher at the Guizhou Academy of Social Sciences. The focus is not on future scientific finds but on “actual circumstances in this province.”

    The effort is one facet of China's ambitious drive to bring its feeble and patchy enforcement of IP rights into line with international norms. Later this month, the State Intellectual Property Office is expected to release a national IP strategy that would strengthen rights of both domestic and foreign companies as well as increase penalties for piracy. And the Supreme People's Court last month announced that foreign experts will now be permitted to testify in patentinfringement cases involving foreign parties.

    But by spinning a legal web of protection around indigenous know-how, Guizhou would enter uncharted waters for China. “Guizhou is regarded as an undeveloped province. Its scientific level is relatively low, but it's rich in traditional knowledge. Because we lack the means to turn knowledge into innovation, we have to protect the knowledge for future development,” says GIPO vice-director An Shouhai, who trained as a plant physiologist and who initiated the legislation.

    Other countries have made similar attempts to reconcile indigenous know-how and IP rights. But Guizhou is an interesting test case, says Shalini Bhutani, an environmental lawyer based in New Delhi for GRAIN, a nonprofit. Hmong, for instance, live in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. “What happens with shared knowledge across borders?” she asks. Guizhou's effort is also timely, as the issues provincial authorities are grappling with are at the heart of negotiations over a global regime for sharing traditional knowledge benefits that will be discussed later this month at the 9th conference of parties to the biodiversity treaty in Bonn, Germany. Conferees aim to devise policies that would achieve a target agreed to 6 years ago: to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

    GIPO plans to present its legislation for approval in the provincial People's Congress by the end of the year. First, however, legal experts must settle a thorny issue: Which forms of indigenous know-how should be treated as IP? It's a tricky balancing act. “If the protection is too narrow, indigenous people may choose not to share their knowledge or know-how. Then everybody loses,” says Zang Xingdong, a law professor at Guizhou University.

    The Kam rice experience has helped shape Guizhou's draft legislation. Although most Kam farmers over the years have switched to the more common Indica rice, farmers in two counties—Li Ping and Cong Jiang—have stuck with their traditional varieties. “These villages have the last Kam sweet rice gene pool,” says Long. “They have been able to preserve their varieties against genetic contamination from Indica strains.”

    By helping Kam chieftains register a trademark for “Kgoux Bagx Dangl” rice, Long's group gave the farmers leverage over companies that wanted to market the rice. “Of course the companies resisted,” Long says. “But once the Kam acquired this right, they could get capital and work with an outside company without being dominated. They had the power to negotiate.” To distribute any income from a marketing deal, Long's group used a new national law on rural development to help Kam farmers organize a cooperative.

    Guizhou's draft legislation is, in part, a patchwork of statutes from existing laws on IP, ethnic minorities, and rural development. “We're taking statutes and integrating them in a creative way to build a new legal framework,” Long says. A key task has been to define the legal concept of traditional knowledge to the exclusion of other legal concepts that are already protected. “Not all traditional knowledge must be protected,” An says. Existing legal regimes cover the protection of cultural relics—legally defined as objects of cultural value made before 1966—and species.

    GIPO is putting a heavy emphasis on indigenous medicines. One test case is a medicinal grass called guanyin cao that Hmong use to treat coughs and colds. Like many traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) remedies, guanyin cao is brewed as a tea. If a company were to identify the active ingredient and develop it as a drug, the innovation would win patent protection and the source of know-how could end up empty-handed. “Companies can misappropriate traditional knowledge by taking advantage of loopholes in the existing legal regime,” says Long. Many prescriptions in other countries are based on open publications of TCM ingredients. “In these instances, there's nothing we can do about it; the law cannot protect the original TCM,” says An. But Guizhou has a window of opportunity to protect the lesser known medicines of the Hmong and Kam. “That's why we are taking action and working on this pioneering legislation,” Long says.


    The Guizhou legislation would ensure that any innovation based on traditional know-how would return a portion of profits to the source of the knowledge. That principle is not controversial, although it may take some creativity to figure out how best to divvy up royalties. “One difficulty is how to divide IP rights. Do they belong to the community, the collective?” asks Lei Xiuwu, director of the Ethnic Research Institute in Kaili. “An IP system inherently based on private rights may not have solutions for the ‘protection’ of traditional knowledge, which is a shared heritage,” adds Bhutani.

    But the draft legislation may go further and provide legal protection to ancient wisdom—such as the Hmong's insight in the use of guanyin cao to treat cough. Guizhou's experts are struggling to determine where to draw the line: what is unique, and what kind of protection it should be afforded. Another issue is whether to regard customs and handicrafts as IP. “In a narrow sense, traditional knowledge only means traditional scientific knowledge. But our understanding is that it also includes traditional culture,” says An.

    In a courtyard on a misty hilltop in Nanhua, a village in the Hmong heartland in southeastern Guizhou, several young women wheel in sync around a tall wooden totem devoted to a butterfly god. They execute graceful dips and pirouettes under the weight of several kilograms of silver jewelry and ornaments, including elaborate headdresses. A trio of young men steps to the fore, playing a Hmong ballad on bamboo flutes called lusheng. Hmong have worn these hand-embroidered garments, danced these dances, and played and sung these songs at festivals since time immemorial. But is the living tradition IP? GIPO thinks so. “All these deserve protection as traditional knowledge,” says An.

    As Lei notes, many museums outside China purchased Hmong dresses decades ago. “But legally acquiring a dress does not mean you own the traditional knowledge. You cannot say the information belongs to that museum. We have to protect the information,” he says. “There is no easy formula,” adds Long.

    If Long and his colleagues succeed, knowledge may not mean power for Guizhou's indigenous peoples, but it might help ensure their survival—or even prosperity—in today's global village.


    The Roots of Morality

    1. Greg Miller

    Neurobiologists, philosophers, psychologists, and legal scholars are probing the nature of human morality using a variety of experimental techniques and moral challenges


    A team of psychologists recently asked dozens of college students to consider several morally charged situations. In one, a friend lies on his résumé to land a job; in another, survivors of a plane crash consider cannibalizing an injured boy to avoid starvation. Students who pondered these hypothetical scenarios while sitting at a filthy desk with sticky stains and a chewed-up pen rated them as more immoral than did students who sat at a pristine desk. In another version of the experiment, a nearby trash can doused with novelty fart spray had a similar effect. The findings, in press at Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, demonstrate that emotions such as disgust exert a powerful influence on moral judgments, even when they are triggered by something unrelated to the moral issue, says study co-author Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

    Haidt is one of a growing number of researchers taking an experimental approach to investigating the nature of human morality. The field has drawn practitioners from diverse backgrounds including philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. They don't always see eye to eye, but they are united in their belief that the scientific method will yield fresh insights into questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries.

    One area of intense interest is the interplay of emotion and reason in moral decision-making. Haidt argues that people rely on gut reactions to tell right from wrong and employ reason mainly when they try to justify their intuitions after the fact, not unlike an art museum visitor who is struck by the beauty of a painting but struggles to explain why. Not everyone accepts this view, but other researchers do see evidence that moral judgments are surprisingly automatic. “I think there is an emerging consensus that things happen pretty quickly and that explicit conscious reasoning is not where the action is,” Haidt says.

    This automaticity has led some researchers to suggest that the human brain has built-in moral instincts. Cognitive neuroscientists are already hunting for the underlying neural mechanisms. At the same time, psychologists and anthropologists are searching for evidence of universal moral principles shared by all people. Others are interested in how morality differs from culture to culture. They are using techniques that include brain imaging and online questionnaires to probe the roots of morality, and some researchers are viewing the development of moral principles through the lens of evolution.

    The work is likely to yield a better understanding of our moral intuitions and where they come from, says Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a philosopher at Dartmouth College. Philosophers, from the ancient Greeks on, have tried to answer these questions mainly through introspection, an exercise that has often amounted to seeking new arguments for a previously held conviction, says Sinnott-Armstrong, who has recently begun some experimental work of his own. “One thing that's fascinating about science is you don't know where you're going to end up.”

    Dissecting moral cognition

    Two 18th century thinkers have had a huge influence on moral philosophy: David Hume, a Scotsman, who argued that passions drive moral judgments, and Immanuel Kant, a German, who countered that dispassionate reason is, or ought to be, the driving force. The clash between these two philosophical titans still reverberates today.

    Lately, Hume seems to be gaining an edge, thanks to the work of Haidt and others. In an influential 2001 paper in Psychological Review, Haidt describes an experiment in which he and colleagues asked people to consider a hypothetical situation involving a brother and sister who decide to have sex. They use two forms of birth control, enjoy the experiment, but decide not to do it again. Most people took little time to condemn the siblings' actions as morally wrong but then struggled when pressed to explain why. After all, there was virtually no chance of conception and the vignette had made it clear that the siblings were not emotionally scarred by the experience. Many of the volunteers eventually resorted to an explanation along the lines of “I just know it's wrong.” If people were reasoning their way to an opinion, Haidt argued, they wouldn't be so dumbfounded when asked to explain it.

    In more recent work, Haidt has investigated whether manipulating emotions can alter moral judgments. The messy desk experiment suggests that it can, as does an earlier study in which Haidt and then-graduate student Thalia Wheatley used hypnotic suggestion to trigger a wave of disgust in volunteers as they read vignettes about morally dubious behavior. Volunteers issued harsher moral judgments for vignettes containing a cue word that triggered the hypnotic suggestion than they did for an alternative version with slightly different wording, Wheatley and Haidt reported in 2005 in Psychological Science.

    Disgust even raised people's moral suspicions when the act described was innocuous. One scenario described a student council member picking topics for faculty-student discussions. When this vignette contained the disgust-triggering cue word, subjects rated the student's activities as less morally appropriate. “It just seems like he's up to something,” one wrote.

    Other evidence that emotions guide moral judgments comes from work with people who've suffered damage to brain regions that mediate emotion. In a 2007 paper in Nature, a team led by Michael Koenigs of the University of Iowa, Iowa City, and Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles reported that people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex made abnormal judgments on hypothetical moral dilemmas that forced them to consider whether it was permissible to sacrifice the life of one person to save several others. These scenarios included variants of the so-called trolley problem, a favorite tool of morality researchers. One version puts the subject behind the wheel of a runaway trolley headed toward five hapless workers; the only way to save the five is to hit a switch on the dashboard that would divert the trolley to a track with just one worker. Healthy volunteers and lesion patients alike tended to say this was acceptable. The two groups differed, however, on a more emotionally charged version of the dilemma in which the only way to save the five is to shove a large man off a footbridge to stop the runaway trolley. Although the same utilitarian logic applies—kill one to save five—healthy subjects found this option harder to stomach: only about 20% said it would be permissible. But twice as many of the brain-damaged subjects said they would shove the man, suggesting that their damaged emotional circuitry made them unusually likely to pick the utilitarian option.

    Jorge Moll, a neuroscientist at Labs D'Or Hospital Network, a private medical and research institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, views the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as part of a network of brain regions underlying “prosocial sentiments” such as guilt and compassion. Moll and colleagues reported last year in Social Neuroscience that this brain region is activated by viewing morally evocative photographs, such as ones of a hungry child, even when no judgment is required. In a 2006 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), he and others reported that the same region is activated when volunteers elect to donate money to charity. Moll views prosocial sentiments as the core of morality and thinks they arose from ancient mechanisms that evolved to enable our ancestors to form social attachments and cooperative groups.

    Philosophical difference.

    New studies tend to support the view of David Hume (left) that emotions drive moral judgments; Immanuel Kant (right) argued that reason should be the driving force.


    The Koenigs study contains hints that emotions aren't the entire story, however, says coauthor Marc Hauser, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University. He points out that the lesion patients still made normal judgments in many situations, particularly regarding dilemmas that didn't tug at the emotions and “easier” ones that are emotionally charged but elicit strong consensus among healthy subjects—that it's wrong, for example, to earn money to feed your family by allowing your young daughter to appear in a pornographic film, even in hard times. “That rules out the strong version of the hypothesis that emotions are causally necessary for making [all] moral judgments,” Hauser says. “That just can't be right.”

    Don't get all emotional

    An alternative view, championed by Joshua Greene, a cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher at Harvard, is that when people grapple with moral dilemmas like the trolley problems, emotion and rationality duke it out in the brain. In Greene's view, the key difference between flipping the switch and shoving the man off the footbridge is that the latter evokes a negative emotional reaction that overrides cold utilitarian logic.

    In a 2001 Science paper, Greene, then a postdoc with Jonathan Cohen at Princeton University, and colleagues reported that the medial frontal gyrus and other brain regions linked to emotion become more active when people contemplate “personal” moral dilemmas—such as shoving the man onto the trolley tracks or removing a man's organs against his will to save five transplant recipients—compared with when they weigh impersonal moral dilemmas—such as flipping a switch to save the workers or declaring bogus business expenses on a tax return. These impersonal dilemmas preferentially activate a different set of brain regions thought to contribute to abstract reasoning and problem solving, Greene and colleagues reported in a follow-up study, published in 2004 in Neuron.

    Based on these findings, Greene envisions a tug of war between emotion and cognition in the brain: Emotions tell us we'll feel terrible if we push the man; cognition says: Push him! Five is greater than one. Greene suspects that the arbiter in this conflict may be a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex. Previous studies have found that this region fires up when people wrestle with many types of internal conflicts, and it did so when subjects in Greene's study faced particularly difficult moral dilemmas.

    Moral dilemma.

    Is it morally acceptable to redirect a runaway trolley car hurtling toward five workers onto a track with just one worker? How about pushing a man off a footbridge into the path of the trolley to stop it before it hits the hapless workers? Most people say they would sacrifice one life to save five in the first scenario but not the second. In this case, emotion may trump utilitarian logic.


    In a recent study that mirrors Haidt's work with manipulating emotion, Greene and colleagues had college students evaluate moral dilemmas while grappling with an extra cognitive burden: searching for a particular number in a string of characters scrolling across a computer screen. The extra cognitive work slowed response times when students made utilitarian judgments but not emotional ones, the researchers report in an upcoming issue of Cognition. Greene sees the study as evidence that cognition is an important part of moral decision-making.

    Getting off track?

    Some researchers see the trolley problems as too artificial. “We don't have a lot of faith in using these esoteric examples,” says Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The situations are so far-fetched that Grafman and others question whether they really engage the neural mechanisms involved in everyday moral reasoning. Everyday moral reasoning is likely to involve a memory component that's missing in Greene's account, Grafman says. “More often than not, we take a situation we've experienced in the past and compare it to the new one,” he says. Brain-imaging studies done with more realistic scenarios might catch some of the underlying neural mechanisms, says Grafman, who is gearing up to do such an experiment in collaboration with Ralph Adolphs and colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who have been collecting hundreds of real-life moral dilemmas experienced by people of different ages, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In a paper published online by Science this week (, researchers led by Ming Hsu, now at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues at Caltech report taking a different approach: scanning the brains of volunteers as they tried to decide the fairest way to distribute donations to a real-life Ugandan orphanage.

    At the same time, some researchers argue that the emphasis on emotion and reason is too simplistic, akin to placing the ghost of Hume in one network of brain regions and the ghost of Kant in another. “It's like they take 18th century categories and try to do 21st century science,” says John Mikhail, a legal scholar at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Mikhail, Hauser, and others point out that before emotion and reason can evaluate a given situation, the brain has to first answer questions such as who did what to whom, whether someone got hurt, and whether the harm was intentional.

    For example, most people would condemn someone who tried to poison a friend's coffee but accidentally stirred in sugar instead of poison. It's the bad intention that matters, not the outcome. To investigate how the brain makes such distinctions, Hauser and Harvard graduate students Liane Young and Fiery Cushman recently teamed up with Rebecca Saxe, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. When volunteers read vignettes about intentional and unintentional harms, activity increased in the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), a brain region involved in sussing out other people's intentions. RTPJ activity was greatest for cases like the bungled poisoning in which someone tried but failed to inflict harm, the researchers reported last year in PNAS.

    At last month's meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, Saxe and Young reported that interfering with RTPJ activity using a noninvasive method called transcranial magnetic stimulation caused people to downplay intentions and, for example, judge the attempted poisoning less harshly because ultimately no harm was done. Such findings demonstrate that the cognitive contributions to moral judgments aren't limited to the weighing of harms that's emphasized by trolley problems, Saxe says. Understanding intentions is another crucial component, and the RTPJ findings begin to hint at the neural mechanisms involved, she says.

    A moral grammar

    Some morality researchers see parallels in the study of language, particularly the influential work of MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who has argued that humans have an innate capacity for language and that all languages share common principles—a universal grammar. Could there be an analogous moral capacity in the human brain and a universal moral grammar?

    Mikhail began pondering these questions as a philosophy graduate student, during a year he spent working with Chomsky at MIT. To investigate, he administered trolley problems and other moral dilemmas to different groups of people, including children and people from non-Western cultures. If there is universal moral grammar, he reasoned, factors such as gender, age, education level, and cultural background should have little influence on the judgments people make. Preliminary results pointed in that direction, and Mikhail's initial work has been expanded and confirmed by Hauser, Cushman, and Young, who developed an online Moral Sense Test ( that has been taken by more than 200,000 people from 120 countries. Chinese, Spanish, and Dutch versions are now up and running as well, and Hauser is collaborating with several anthropologists to gather similar data from remote indigenous populations in Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, and Bolivia. It's work in progress, Hauser says, but so far “it's looking like there's a lot of similarity across widely different cultures.”

    Mikhail, meanwhile, has been studying legal texts for clues to what the elements of a universal moral grammar might be. “The law is the one institution in most societies that's responsible for the practical matter of solving day-to-day moral problems that arise,” Mikhail says. “The rules of law that have evolved over time, to my mind, are a really good first approximation of the unconscious rules that people use in moral judgments.”

    Flavors of morality

    Although harm and fairness have been the focus of most research so far on the psychology and neuroscience of morality, some researchers think there's more to the story. Haidt argues for five psychological foundations of morality: He includes harm and fairness and adds loyalty, respect for authority, and spiritual purity (Science, 18 May 2007, p. 998). Other scholars have proposed lists of universal aspects of morality, and Haidt identified his five by trying to work out what they all had in common. He hypothesizes that all five exist in every culture but are emphasized to varying degrees. “I see them as being much like the five kinds of taste buds,” he says. “If you go around the world, the cuisines differ in how much they rely on each one.”

    Haidt set up a Web survey ( to evaluate how people weight the five foundations. More than 35,000 people have logged on so far, he says, and the findings suggest cultural differences in how people carve up the moral domain. In more liberal cultures, such as Western Europe and Australia, people emphasize harm and fairness over the others. In more conservative cultures, including South Asia and the Middle East, all five foundations are important. In the United States, which falls in the middle of the spectrum, Haidt and colleagues have found a similar divide between self-described liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to downplay purity, for example, arguing that something can be indecent without being morally wrong, Haidt says. But it's a matter of degree: Although many liberals wonder why conservatives are so hung up on what types of sexual behavior are right and wrong, they have analogous hang-ups, often more symbolic than rational, about food that was processed in certain ways, or by people seen as either villains or victims. Haidt says he hopes the work will spur his colleagues, most of them two-foundation liberals like himself, to think beyond harm and fairness.

    The moral brain.

    Neuroimaging studies have linked several brain regions to moral cognition. Disruptions to the right temporoparietal junction (brown), which is involved in understanding intentions, or the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (green), which processes emotion, have been found to alter moral judgments. Greene and colleagues have suggested that activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (pink) signals conflict between emotion, reflected by activity in the medial frontal gyrus (blue) and other areas (orange, brown), and “cold” cognition, reflected by activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (yellow).


    Sinnott-Armstrong agrees that morality is multifaceted: “It's not clear to me at all that all those judgments where we call different types of acts morally wrong are based on the same psychological or neurobiological mechanisms.” He has been working on brain-imaging experiments to investigate whether different types of moral scenarios engage different neural circuitry.

    Many researchers think moral cognition depends on neural mechanisms that also play roles in other types of social cognition and are likely present to some degree in our primate kin. Primatologists have found hints of a sense of harm and fairness even in monkeys, who will forgo food for days to prevent a neighbor from receiving a shock and will reject a small reward when they've learned that a given task usually earns them a larger one. Haidt speculates that morality is an elaboration of primate social behavior that evolved in part because it helped promote cohesiveness in groups of early humans, giving them an advantage over competing groups. Hauser agrees that morality probably has roots in primate social behavior. But that raises a puzzle about why moral decisions seem to feel somehow different, he says. “One of the problems for our field right now is when you say something is moral, how does the brain know it's moral as opposed to just social?”

    It's too early to know where all of the empirical work on morality will lead. Forced to speculate, researchers can envision brain scans that could determine whether a defendant in a murder case had the mental capacity to tell right from wrong and lawyers who wear perfume formulated to sway the emotions—and verdict—of a jury. Sinnott-Armstrong says he can envision revised sentencing guidelines that take human psychology into account. “If we have a better understanding of morality, we'll have a better understanding of how [lawmakers] get their intuitions about how much punishment is deserved,” he says. “We might find that [moral intuitions] are more reliable in some cases than in others.”

    Most likely of all, perhaps, the work may give us a better understanding of ourselves. However, reducing a noble human attribute such as morality to a matter of natural selection and brain activity may lead us into uncomfortable territory, says Saxe: “Even though we know this in hundreds of ways, it continues to be both fascinating and unsettling to find out that something you thought of as a feature of the self turns out to be a product of your brain.”


    To Touch the Water of Mars and Search for Life's Abode

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    The Phoenix lander will soon arrive at Mars to perform the first analyses of martian water and to probe the rocky polar soil as a habitat for life; it has been a struggle

    The fortunes of planetary science had sunk about as low as they could go by the late 1990s. First, Mars Climate Orbiter missed its mark on 11 December 1998 and incinerated itself deep in the martian atmosphere—something about engineers' confusion over metric versus English units of rocket thrust. Then, less than a month later, Mars Polar Lander (MPL) headed in for its blazing atmospheric entry, parachute descent toward the surface, and soft, rocket-aided landing. It was never heard from again; why, no one knows for sure.

    Now it's Phoenix's turn. On 25 May, the $420 million mission will attempt the first soft landing on Mars in 30 years on its way to search for what could be “the last viable habitat on Mars,” as Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, puts it. As its name suggests, Phoenix will attempt to rise from the ashes of Mars Polar Lander.

    Team members inherited much of the mission's hardware and software from MPL and a second, canceled Mars mission, the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander. Wringing the unseen risks out of flawed hand-me-downs created during NASA's ill-fated “faster, better, cheaper” era proved a challenge, but the team says it's as ready as it ever could be. “We've really worked the kinks out,” says team member Carol Stoker of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. “We're really excited.”

    The excitement comes from the prospect of getting their hands—or at least a robot arm's scoop—on martian water. NASA has long followed the water on Mars in pursuit of life but always arrived billions of years behind its fleeting objective. With Phoenix, researchers expect not only to touch water frozen just beneath the surface but to “taste” and “smell” it using onboard laboratories. And if that ice ever melted long enough to harbor martian life, Phoenix could return evidence of that too. It might even detect the molecular remains of martian life, ancient or modern. But first it has to be ready for its 7 minutes of terror.

    Out of the fast lane

    Landing on Mars is all about stopping, explains Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. One minute the half-ton spacecraft is doing 20,500 kilometers per hour, and 7 minutes later it's supposed to settle gently on the surface. MPL apparently didn't survive its terrifying arrival at Mars. “We inherited a spacecraft that failed to land properly,” says Smith. “We had to be suspicious of what we inherited.” The advantage of a big inheritance, he adds, is that the engineering team had almost 4 years to work out the bugs before launch rather than the usual year or so.

    A review board investigation in 2000 had concluded that the most likely MPL failure would have come as the lander extended its three legs while still riding its retrorockets down. An onboard computer could have mistaken the jolt of the leg extension for the impact of touchdown, the signal to turn off the rockets. The resulting 40 meters of free fall would have been the end of it. But “nobody could be sure” what the problem really was, Smith notes.


    So the Phoenix entry, descent, and landing team tackled every trouble spot identified by the MPL review board and by the return-to-flight review of the eventually canceled 2001 mission. Then the team came up with some potential problems of its own. “We found over 12 particular items that were not on anyone else's list,” says Goldstein, and “we've resolved those too.” Problem resolution involves analysis and testing in the lab, in computer simulations, and in the field until the root cause of the problem is found.

    Resolution did not always come easily. The lander's radar, for example, turned out to have a long list of failure modes, says Smith. The model—one flown on F-16 fighters—was adapted to measure velocities of a very different craft. “We did an enormous amount of testing and analysis,” he says, including trying to fool the radar by flying it on a cable beneath a helicopter over a variety of terrains. Flawed computer code made the radar stumble all too easily. Testing it and fixing its problems accounted for much of the mission's $30 million cost overrun.

    One problem that turned up late in testing never was solved. The Mars Descent Imager—originally built for the Mars Surveyor Lander—was going to snap downward-looking pictures from the descending lander. But testing showed that sending images to a data-handling component could silence the onboard gyroscope and produce another disaster. Lacking time and money for a redesign, engineers decided to keep the descent imager switched off.

    Given all the time and money for testing, “the team feels confident they've done every test they would ever want to do,” says Smith. And their efforts have not gone unnoticed. “You may not succeed,” Gentry Lee of JPL—chair of one of a number of external review panels—told the team, “but you deserve to succeed.”

    Onto a sweet spot

    While the engineers were working on getting a lander safely to the surface of Mars, the scientists were looking for a safe surface to land on. Both efforts operated under considerable constraints. The engineers couldn't test the entire landing system under actual martian conditions, only components. And the scientists were in the hunt for landing hazards that they couldn't see. They started by looking at some of the most inviting terrain on the planet, the smooth plains of the northern lowlands. It was there above 60° latitude that instruments on the orbiting Mars Odyssey had detected ice-rich soils (Science, 11 April 2003, p. 234).

    So Raymond Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and other Phoenix team members gathered the usual data returned from Mars orbiters, including imaging to count potentially hazardous rocks. The available imaging could not resolve the smallest rocks that might pose a threat, but extrapolating their numbers from larger rocks had worked well before (Science, 16 June 2006, p. 1588). “Everything we had looked good in this region [called] B for ‘best,’” says Arvidson. “It all looked pretty benign. We were happily moving along.”

    Then in November 2006, the HiRISE camera aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began its imaging mission in earnest. Able to resolve rocks as small as 1 meter, it promptly returned startling images of “boulders the size of minivans,” as Smith puts it. Apparently, the repetitive temperature changes that create the distinctive “polygonal” patterning of the icy northern plains also work buried boulders upward to the surface. The rock counters, it turns out, had been counting not individual rocks but clusters of these reworked rocks, says Arvidson.

    After 3 months of searching with HiRISE, “we found a good place, one of the few in the northern plains,” says Arvidson: a broad blanket of fine-grained, boulder-free debris thrown out of a nearby 10-kilometer-wide impact crater.

    Getting wet

    Once safely on the surface, Phoenix can finally catch up with the water. At first, the ice itself will be nowhere in sight, even from the lander's camera tower or from the imager on the end of its 2.4-meter, scoop-equipped robot arm. But “there's a lot of ice where we're going,” says Smith. “They say we'll hit very hard ice 2 to 6 centimeters down” beneath the loose soil. Researchers reach a similar conclusion whether they are interpreting neutron and gamma-ray remote sensing data from Odyssey, inferring ice depth from the dimensions of the polygonal patterning, or modeling martian water vapor permeating the cold soil and forming ice in its pores.

    Twice measured, once cut.

    The Phoenix lander, on its way to analyze martian ice and soil, inherited much of its hardware from previous missions, one disastrous and one canceled. That required exhaustive testing of complex systems like the one for entry, descent, and landing.


    No one knows just what will turn up once the arm digs down to the ice. The arm will feed soil and ice samples to Phoenix's two analytical instrument packages. One will heat samples to 1000°C and feed the resulting gases to a mass spectrometer for molecular analysis. The other is a miniaturized wet chemistry lab for geochemical analysis.

    Looks good from here.

    Phoenix will land on frozen “polygonal” terrain whose crinkliness is here accentuated by long shadows.


    The Phoenix science team will combine these analytical capabilities with lander imaging—from instruments ranging from the arm-mounted camera down to an atomic force microscope—to seek out a habitable environment, or at least one habitable in the recent geologic past. Phoenix doesn't carry life-detecting instruments, says Stoker, “but if we found evidence of habitability—liquid water or organic compounds—that would make that environment the target for a future mission. That's what makes the landing site so exciting.” If ice had melted during warmer summers thousands or millions of years ago, the liquid water might have left distinctive soil textures or leached salts from the soil and pulled the salts up toward the surface.

    Finding life's organic matter could be more problematic. Any organic matter could be the remains of long-past life or even of dormant life locked in the ice awaiting the next thaw. But it could also be never-living material carried in by the constant drizzle of meteorites. Back in the 1970s, the Viking landers looked for organic matter down to the parts-per-billion level and found none, not even the meteoritic sort. Mystified, many researchers have since concluded that Mars somehow generates strong oxidizing agents that obliterate any organics on or within the soil. They hope the ice at the landing site has protected the organics long enough for Phoenix to find them.

    Phoenix has 90 days in its “nominal” mission to look for a likely place for life. Unlike the two ancient rovers still dragging themselves around the planet, Phoenix will not be operating much beyond its allotted time. It has only a dozen single-use sample vessels between the two instrument packages, and when “winter comes to the north, we're pretty much done,” says Smith. Within a few months of the end of the nominal mission, the winter cold will wrap Phoenix in a thick blanket of carbon dioxide frost. If in the martian spring it rose once again from its icy tomb, Smith says, “I'd be absolutely dumbfounded.”


    Talk Nerdy to Me

    1. Karen Heyman*
    1. Karen Heyman is a freelance writer in Santa Monica, California.

    A surprise hit, the new TV comedy The Big Bang Theory plumbs science for laughs, thanks to aid from physicist David Saltzberg and friends

    Weird science.

    Real physics and math make cameos on The Big Bang Theory.


    Leonard: “At least I didn't have to invent 26 dimensions to make the math work.”

    Sheldon: “I didn't invent them. They're there.”

    Leonard: “In what universe?!”

    Sheldon: “All of them. That's the point.”

    Physicists may be notorious for coming up with weird concepts such as alternative universes. But a popular situation comedy based on their work seems almost as fanciful. Yet last October, the American TV network CBS premiered The Big Bang Theory, and about 9 million people now watch it each week—enough for CBS to quickly renew the show for another year. The Washington Post's critic Tom Shales calls it “the funniest new sitcom of the season.” Apparently, it isn't just quarks that can be strange and charming.

    Online Extra

    See video clips from The Big Bang Theory (YouTube).

    Centering on two male physics postdocs and the blonde bombshell who moves in next door, The Big Bang Theory follows the sitcom formula of placing quirky, exaggerated characters in situations both odd and mundane. But where the show breaks the mold is that most of those characters and situations revolve around science, highly accurate science for the most part, thanks to experimental particle physicist David Saltzberg of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who's been with the show from the initial episode. From making sure lab equipment looks suitably haphazard to supplying the equations displayed on the show, Saltzberg's presence is regularly felt on the set; he even has a director's chair with his name on it. “I can't overestimate his value to what we do,” says Bill Prady, who along with Chuck Lorre created the show.

    Hollywood has a tradition of exploiting geek humor, from Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor to the Revenge of the Nerds. Many current TV shows, particularly forensic crime dramas such as CSI, draw regularly on math and science, both for plot elements and the occasional laugh. Numb3rs, in which a mathematician helps his FBI agent brother, is even used as the basis for teacher's worksheets provided by Texas Instruments and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Given all of that, working on film or television can be a perk for a Los Angeles-area scientist or physician. Kevin Grazier of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, for example, consults for three shows.

    Still, The Big Bang Theory is the first time a prime-time comedy has taken science this seriously—and Saltzberg is surely the only particle physicist to advise a sitcom. Science recently spoke with him and Prady, and paid a visit to the set of The Big Bang Theory, to learn how cutting-edge research gets injected into the show.

    Odd couple.

    Physicist David Saltzberg (left) and Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory's co-creator.


    The pair defended the show against charges that it has too few women scientists and mocks physicists as Klingon-speaking nerds. Whether giving a talk about the sitcom at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics or simply attending a party, Saltzberg inevitably encounters people offended by the show's putative sexism and nerdism. Most of the show's detractors, he notes, have never seen a whole episode. Prady stresses that The Big Bang Theory means no ill will. “If the scientific community is concerned with how we depict them, be gentle and be patient,” he says. “We are you; we love you.”

    Sheldon:This is one of those circumstances people unfamiliar with the law of large numbers would call a coincidence.”

    Saltzberg got his unusual gig via a friend, a Hawaiian astrophysicist who'd helped on the show's unaired pilot. When the show was picked up by CBS, the producers went searching for a local to vet last-minute changes. Saltzberg generally looks over the scripts in advance and then drives in once a week to Burbank for the show's evening tapings. Saltzberg is “right there to give us the new word we need,” Prady says. “A couple of weeks ago, he provided us with a terrific, genuine joke, and it was on the air.”

    The sitcom features Leonard and Sheldon, the two physicists, and Penny, an actress/waitress who is their bridge to the world of people who don't have a periodic table shower curtain. She's a loyal friend, even attending Leonard's talk on supersolidity—at which she falls asleep. Leonard's subject matter was suggested by the show's “geek of the week,” in this case graduate student Matt Mecklenburg, who'd accompanied Saltzberg to the set, as colleagues, friends, and students do every week.

    One can argue about whether The Big Bang Theory is funny—TV critic Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune called its jokes “tired and mean-spirited”—but it's clear that Prady and his writers have scientific chops, accurately incorporating physics terms such as “soft component of cosmic radiation” into dialogue even before Saltzberg sees a script. Several years ago, one writer dressed up for a Halloween party as the Doppler effect. The show incorporated the idea, putting Sheldon in a bodysuit with white vertical stripes separated by less and less distance. He made accompanying train noises whose pitch went up and down. To his dismay, no guest got it.

    Prady, a self-taught software programmer, initially envisioned programmers at the heart of a sitcom. But sitting at a computer all day doesn't make for great physical comedy. Physicists, however, write on whiteboards, and that visual element had appeal: “We realized this was a better way to show somebody working with their mind,” Prady says.

    Leonard: “Sounds like a breakthrough, should I ask Science to hold the cover?”

    Sheldon: “It's time travel, Leonard. I will have already done that.”

    Some episodes of The Big Bang Theory could inspire an evening of studying math or physics. Saltzberg likes to inject scripts with terms such as Casimir effect, molecular positronium, and giant magnetoresistance (the subject of the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics). “I go for stuff that sounds really fake—that you think is Hollywood science but find out not only is it real, it's topical,” he says.

    Saltzberg views the show as a tool for science education: PBS's NOVA with rim shots. During an awkward date, Leonard gets an olive to rotate inside a glass—and corrects Penny, and likely most viewers, that centripetal, not centrifugal, force explains the trick.

    Leonard, played by Johnny Galecki, is the experimentalist who longs for Penny and has a disastrous fling with Leslie, a brilliant labmate, who spends part of their tryst correcting an equation. In the episode in which Leonard first asks Leslie for a date—“a biosocial exploration with a neurochemical overlay,” he calls it—the two test how long it takes a powerful lab laser to heat up soup.

    Leslie is the only female researcher on the show, a complaint Prady and Saltzberg hear often from women, whether scientists or journalists. Prady promises that more female scientists will appear. “The [female-male] ratio is actually higher on the show than it is in my part of the field, which is pretty bad,” Saltzberg unhappily adds.

    The show's writers saw that firsthand when they toured UCLA labs. Prady met a physicist who lies about what she does in social situations, because she feels her career intimidates men. “We're going to have Leslie do that,” Prady says. “Whenever anybody says they lie about who they are, there's a rich story to tell there.”

    The show's other lead character is string theorist Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons as an arrogant, emotionally oblivious, yet endearing, former child prodigy. When Penny complains that a bad relationship lasted 4 years, “as long as high school,” Sheldon, perplexed, replies, “It took you 4 years to get through high school?” He's even less tactful to non-Ph.D. engineers, calling them “Oompa-Loompas of science,” a knowing jab at the academic pecking order.

    Sheldon's lack of social graces and other quirks have led to speculation that he must have Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder commonly assumed to be prevalent in scientists and computer programmers. Although Prady concedes that Sheldon fits the diagnosis, he rejects the idea that this is the ultimate in negative geek stereotypes, saying the character is an affectionate composite of the programmers he used to know.

    In character.

    Jim Parsons (Sheldon) as the Doppler Effect, Johnny Galecki (Leonard) as Frodo, Kunal Nayyar (Raj) as Thor, and Simon Helberg (Howard) as Robin Hood.


    Saltzberg also doesn't believe the show paints a depressing picture of scientists. “I am willing to discuss it with anyone who has seen a couple of episodes,” he says, noting that a UCLA physics student who recently visited the set remarked that she wanted to be just like the show's characters. “This is our attempt to show our own lives,” Prady says. “My father-in-law is a brilliant pediatric rheumatologist, but he is capable of saying, ‘That's a very interesting story, but who is this Tom Cruise?'”

    Sheldon: “That's my work. It's just some quantum mechanics. A little string theory doodling around the edges. That part there—that's just a joke. It's a spoof of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation.”

    UCLA hasn't objected to Saltzberg's spending his free time consulting for the show—he gets an on-air credit and fee—but Warner Bros.' lawyers have stopped on-air disclosure of Sheldon and Leonard's academic home. Still, a slip during the pilot, and its Pasadena setting, obviously hint at Caltech, whose walkways and fountains grace Numb3rs's “CalSci.”

    Science is vital to the show but not at the expense of humor, Saltzberg must always remind himself. At a rehearsal, he catches that an equation he provided with accompanying Feynman diagram appears scarily complicated but is actually too basic to cause physics postdocs the terror the scene requires. The writers gamely try out new dialogue, but nothing clicks. They finally ask Saltzberg to provide a new, more challenging equation, with the same solution as the old one so no dialogue has to be changed. Mercifully, before Saltzberg has to improvise, everyone realizes that all it takes is modifying the characters' reactions: It's an engineer who's most frightened.

    Although Saltzberg always winces when he realizes he's let something wrong slip in, he's also amused that even his most accurate contributions come off as fake. “If I look on the [Internet] message boards, there's still complaints—no matter how right you get the science, there's going to be some fraction of people who think it's wrong!”

    Saltzberg has found scientific allies for his defense of the show—and a few fans of his own. “Our outreach department really enjoys watching the show; the science adviser is very good,” says Rebecca Thompson-Flagg, public outreach specialist for the American Physical Society. (The society plans to send the show material with its logo for use.) Science writer Jennifer Ouellette recently penned an op-ed in Symmetry, a magazine for particle physicists, calling on its readers to embrace the show. (David Harris, the physicist who is editor of the magazine, loves the show.) “I bought a T-shirt at the American Physical Society that said, ‘Flirt harder, I'm a physicist,’’ Saltzberg says. “I don't know why we should hold television up to a different standard than we hold ourselves.”


    Into the Wild: Reintroduced Animals Face Daunting Odds

    1. Virginia Morell

    Researchers in the emerging field of wildlife reintroduction battle hawks, habitat loss, and poachers to give animals a second chance

    Ready for reentry.

    Released otters in the Netherlands quickly had a baby boom.


    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—In some ways, the science of reintroducing wildlife to the wild is like staging a reality show: Even after you get the principal actors into the right setting, there's no telling what they will do. Take the case of juvenile male otter A08, released with adult males and females in a peat bog in the Netherlands 3 years ago in an effort to restore a flagship species (Lutra lutra) that had gone extinct in the wild in 1998. Once released, A08 was “chased away by the other males,” says population geneticist Hans Peter Koelewijn of the Alterra Research Institute in Wageningen, the Netherlands. But a year later, A08 surfaced as the father of half of the 28 young otters born in the wild, shown via genetic analysis of the otters' scat. “Somehow he'd become the dominant male,” Koelewijn recalled. With Genghis Khan-like determination, A08 busily impregnated most of the females for the next several litters.

    Despite all the baby otters, the effort “seemed doomed to failure,” says Koelewijn, because A08's dominance raised the specter of inbreeding. When reports came of otters being hit by cars—their chief cause of mortality—Koelewijn admits that team members would whisper, “Let it be A08.” Ultimately, A08 took a natural fall: His sons deposed him.

    A08's time in the sun holds a lesson for reintroduction programs, Koelewijn told the audience at a recent meeting here:* “You can have a technical strategy, a scientific strategy, and a socioeconomic strategy, but the animals also have their own strategy.”

    The young science of reintroduction biology is struggling to map out those strategies for success, as evidenced by the tenor of talks and posters at the reintroduction meeting, organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ) in Chicago, Illinois. More than 200 scientists and wildlife managers from 31 countries met for the first time, hoping to bring new rigor to sprawling efforts to restore species including the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) on Massachusetts's Nantucket Island and the one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) in India.

    It's a mighty challenge. Early reintroduction efforts often failed; and today, less than half of all such projects are proven successful, says Joanne Earnhardt, an LPZ population biologist. In some cases, reintroduced species do well at first, only to be felled later by the same forces that drove them extinct in the wild in the first place. In other cases, there are simply no data on how reintroduced species are doing. And yet the field is exploding, growing from a total of some 100 reintroduced species in the early 1990s to more than 700 by this year, 74% of them mammals and birds. (Another conference, focused on bird reintroductions, takes place this week at the Zoological Society of London.)

    There are some striking success stories: Golden lion tamarins (Leontopithecus rosalia) in Brazil now number more than 1500 in the wild, and an astonishing 80% of bird reintroductions in New Zealand have proved successful. Researchers hope there will be more to come, given the long list of species in need. “We are in a time of extinctions, and reintroductions will be key in the 21st century,” zoologist Philip Seddon of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, said at the conference.

    Every reintroduction faces daunting challenges, from assessing the genetic diversity of the animals to ensuring that the habitat can sustain them. “Habitat quality is certainly key,” said Debra Shier, a behavioral ecologist with the Zoological Society of San Diego in Escondido, California. “But you have to measure it from the perspective of the animal.” In essence, any reintroduction is a “forced dispersal,” she explained, and there can be many reasons why an animal won't settle after being released into what humans think is perfect habitat. For example, even after 40 years, red kites in Britain haven't moved into the high-quality habitat scientists had identified for them; instead, they crowd in with other kites in central Wales.

    Animals often settle in better if there are signs of their fellows nearby; thus, before translocating black rhinos in South Africa, biologists from the San Diego Zoo spread rhino dung around the new area. “It doesn't seem to matter whose dung it is,” said Shier, “just so long as it's black rhino dung.” Similarly, playback calls of black-capped vireos in Texas have helped reassure newcomers, and wooden decoys have drawn fairy terns in New Zealand to reestablish old breeding territories.

    That behavioral approach has guided the reintroduction of the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), said wildlife biologist Thomas White of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. Since 2006, 62 parrots have been raised in large cages—designed to help them stay aerobically active—right at the Rio Abajo site where they were to be released; to date, 46 have been set free and another 20 are scheduled to fly this year. Living in the cages helps “imprint” the habitat, making it more likely that the birds will stay in the vicinity and form a flock with other parrots. “When they're released, they are already ‘home,’” said White.

    Newly released wildlife may also need to learn other key behaviors, including hunting and parenting. In the case of the parrots, White and his team try to train them to recognize and avoid their chief predator, red tail hawks, by watching managed attacks. With a parrot pair now nesting in the wild, 18 months after release, and about 25 birds still alive, the project may prove successful—although many at the meeting questioned just what “success” means in reintroduction biology.

    IUCN defines the term as the establishment of a “self-sustaining population that requires minimal long-term management.” Some projects do meet this standard. For instance, dozens of bird species are thriving on their own again in New Zealand, where scientists are now bringing back reptiles, invertebrates, and plants—all the key players in island ecosystems that were lost after rats arrived on European ships. Some of the Kiwis' success is due to the government's “practical approach,” says Ian Jamieson, a behavioral ecologist at Otago. Faced with fewer regulations, managers can “just go in and do the job,” including removing all invasive species. Elsewhere, as in the United States and Europe, a tangle of government agencies may be involved in any reintroduction, and managers must juggle competing interests.

    Against the odds.

    The Puerto Rican parrot (top) may yet be reestablished, but the Oman Arabian oryx is almost extinct in the wild.


    That's why, for many projects, IUCN's definition of success might “not be grounded in reality,” argues biologist Markus Gusset of Germany's Leipzig Zoo. He studied a project in South Africa, which has reestablished several small populations of African wild dogs in conservation areas. There are islands of habitat separated by mostly unsuitable areas where people have moved in. So when the dogs reproduce, they must be trucked from one area to another, “mimicking a dispersal,” and put together in new packs. “It's successful in the short-term,” Gusset said, because the dogs are reproducing. “But it can only be successful in the long-term if the translocations continue. It's the best we can do.”

    Indeed, the human hand hovered over every talk and poster at the meeting, and many researchers pointed out that without the support of local communities, reintroduction projects are doomed to fail. Wildlife biologist Andrew Spalton, an adviser on the environment to the Royal Court in Muscat, Oman, described how the once-lauded Oman Arabian oryx reintroduction program rapidly collapsed because of a thriving illegal wildlife trade, which caused the antelope's original decline.

    The last wild oryx (Oryx leucoryx) was killed in the desert of Oman in 1972; but Operation Oryx, working with the San Diego Zoo, was already breeding the animals in captivity. A decade later, oryx were returned to the wild, and within 13 years, in 1995, there were 450 wild Oman oryx roaming free. But the following year, poachers began capturing the oryx to sell to private collectors with “small zoos or pens in their backyards,” said Spalton. Buyers anted up $25,000 for a wild female oryx. Some 100 poachers were arrested and convicted to no avail. Today, there are few wild oryx in Oman. Poaching for meat and catching females to sell was the “cause of the original decline, and it happened again,” said Spalton, perhaps because the project's rangers “all came from one community.” Those left out were among the first poachers. “We did do the science,” Spalton concluded, “but we should have had social scientists on our team,” who might have come up with a better response to the poaching.

    Digging in.

    The burying beetle is gaining a toehold on Nantucket.


    Even when a project seems successful, in some cases it's hard to be sure of the reasons because the original data are missing or incomplete. “Were Hawaiian crows reintroduced as adults or fledglings? No one really remembers,” says Earnhardt. “When you have a high-profile species such as the California condor, every egg that's laid is documented. But for low-profile species such as the brown nuthatch, almost no data” have been collected. To help remedy these problems, Earnhardt unveiled a new LPZ database documenting the 602 releases of 128 avian species (; a similar database is being created for amphibians.

    An initial baby boom in the wild, like that spurred by A08, is no guarantee of long-term success, either, Seddon and others pointed out, saying that monitoring must continue. Conservation biologist Devra Kleiman of the Smithsonian Institution, who coordinated the tamarin project, now fears that it may be doomed by its own achievements. “It's labeled a ‘success,’ so everyone thinks we can stop now,” she said. “We're having difficulty getting funds to continue the monitoring,” leaving the tamarins potentially at risk for a repeat decline. “That's the trap,” agrees Seddon. “I'm not sure we can ever take our eye off the ball,” especially because climate change may transform environments after animals have been released.

    As for the Dutch otters, they may soon be on their own: The government may cut off funding next year. As feared, A08's exuberant mating has led to sister-brother and aunt-nephew couples, and it's not clear what the long-term effects will be. But other otters are mixing it up with more recently released individuals, Koelewijn says. Despite the challenges, he and other researchers are still optimistic that their work will help give the otters and other teetering-on-the-brink species a second chance to make a home in the time of the Anthropocene.

    • *First International Wildlife Reintroduction Conference, Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, 15–16 April 2008.

Log in to view full text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution