Science  07 Nov 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5903, pp. 833

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  1. THREE Q'S


    Acclaimed mathematician, best-selling author, newspaper columnist, and host of the current BBC television series The Story of Maths, Marcus du Sautoy has been appointed to the Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford in the U.K. He will succeed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who retired from the chair last month.

    Q: Dawkins was a very high-profile holder of this professorship. What might you do differently?

    I want to steer the position back to science rather than talking about religion, which is what I think it's been slightly concentrated on the past few years.

    Q: Is communicating mathematics to the public more challenging than communicating evolution?

    It is, partly because many of the things we study just exist in the mind and don't have a physical reality. But mathematics is fundamental to all the sciences. It is the language of nature.

    Q: “Public understanding” is a difficult thing to quantify. How will you measure the success of your efforts?

    Some indications [might be that] on [BBC] Radio 1, they're now quite happy to mention what a prime number is without batting an eye. That would not have been true 15 years ago. Once you see mathematics getting embedded into the public psyche and popular culture, that will be an indication that we're getting the message through. If we see fewer people saying “I hate maths” and actually choosing maths as a university subject, that will also be considered a success.


    NEW DIRECTION. DESY, Germany's particle physics lab near Hamburg, this week tapped a prominent solid-state physicist, Helmut Dosch of the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research in Stuttgart, to be its new director-general beginning in March 2009. This mismatch of disciplines reflects a shift in the lab itself. DESY's main accelerator, HERA, shut down in 2007, and the lab's main focus is now XFEL, an x-ray-free electron laser for studying the structure of matter that will be completed by 2013. “DESY will shed light on so-far-unexplored dimensions in nanospace,” says Dosch.


    WARM CASH. Lured by $15.7 million from the Alberta, Canada, government and the University of Lethbridge (UL), neuroscientist Bruce McNaughton is reestablishing his Canadian roots. Last month, the 60-year-old researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson, joined UL's Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience and brought with him a talented former postdoc, David Euston, also from UA. More will follow, says McNaughton, who expects to provide a “kind of theoretical and computational perspective” for the center while steering younger scientists along promising avenues of research.


    McNaughton, who left Canada in 1982 to do a postdoc in Norway, says he was attracted by the lack of strings attached to the prize, the first of three Polaris Investigator Awards that the province is offering to top-flight scientists from around the world (Science, 6 April 2007, p. 29).

    McNaughton's only lament is the climate. “Ideally, one would live in Arizona at this time of year and come up here in the summertime,” he says.


    BACK TO THE LAB. J. Michael Bishop will step down in June 2009 as chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The 72-year-old Nobelist will remain on the faculty as a professor of microbiology and immunology.

    In his decade-long tenure as chancellor, Bishop oversaw both the construction of a second campus that will become one of the country's largest biomedical research centers and the establishment of an institute for research on stem cells and regenerative medicine. There were also some rough patches, among them lingering financial fallout from a failed hospital merger with Stanford University in Palo Alto in 1997 and the dismissal last year of medical school dean David Kessler over a dispute about the university's finances (Science, 21 December 2007, p. 1855).

    Harold Varmus, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Bishop, says Bishop has had a successful run as chancellor. “He enjoyed raising money and was enormously good at it at a time when UCSF was growing at a dramatic pace,” says Varmus, adding that the university's reputation “just continues to improve.”


    PLUCKED. How often does a geologist have to be whisked off by helicopter in the middle of fieldwork? It happened to Greg Stock last month.

    The staff geologist at Yosemite National Park in northern California was halfway into a 6-day climb to map the rock types on the face of the El Capitan mountain when he heard a loud rumble over his radio. A few kilometers away, a rockfall had sent nearly 6000 m3 of stone tumbling down to Curry Village, a collection of rustic cabins and tent sites.


    The rockfall had slightly injured three people, and park managers wanted Stock to come over immediately to assess the chance of another incident. But he was several hundred meters up in the air, clinging to the world's most famous stone wall. So a rescue team landed a helicopter on top of the cliff, hauled Stock up with a long rope, and flew him to the accident site.

    Ironically, Stock was climbing to learn more about why rockfalls happen. The previous night, he had heard of a much smaller rockfall at the accident site that “unsettled” him. Had he been able to check it out, it might have provided clues that the larger one was coming. “I wish that I wasn't up [on El Capitan] at the time,” he says. The mapping effort, which Stock's guides completed, will help him locate the source of a mysterious 2.7-million-m3 rockfall that came off El Cap 3600 years ago.