Random Samples

Science  05 Dec 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5907, pp. 1443
  1. MOLECULAR MATCH FOR MAN WHO MOVED THE EARTH

    Nicolaus Copernicus died in 1543, decades before his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium changed the world with the idea that Earth orbits the sun. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

    CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS

    In 2005, archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in Pultusk, Poland, used church records and ground-penetrating radar to unearth a skeleton from under a medieval cathedral in the Polish town of Frombork whose age matched the 70-year-old Copernicus. Analysis of the bones and a reconstruction of the face supported the identification. But without DNA evidence, the team couldn't be sure—and Copernicus, a Catholic priest, left no known heirs.

    He did leave hairs, however. In the archives of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, researchers found several nestled deep in the binding of Copernicus's well-thumbed copy of a standard astronomical reference, Calendarium Romanum Magnum. Uppsala geneticist Marie Allen extracted and amplified mitochondrial DNA from the badly degraded hairs and compared it with mtDNA from the skeleton's tooth. The results, announced last week in Warsaw, were positive.

    Pultusk archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski, who led the 2005 excavation, says Copernicus's bones will be reburied in Frombork in 2010.

  2. SOAKING UP SOME RAYS

    Fiber optics has an undersea prototype, it turns out. German marine biologists have discovered that living sponges can beam light to their innermost tissues through tubelike skeletal structures known as spicules.

    A cut through Tethya aurantium shows its light-transmitting spicules.CREDIT: FRANZ BRÜMMER

    Many sponges are hosts to symbiotic photosynthetic bacteria or algae. Scientists once thought these lived only at the surface but later discovered that even microbes deep inside were getting needed light.

    But how? Franz Brümmer of the University of Stuttgart dissected the sponge Tethya aurantium and discovered that its silica-based spicules, which look and act a lot like optical fibers, could easily transmit light. Inserting photosensitive paper into tiny slits made in living sponges, he found that each spicule channeled light to the sun-loving microbes deep within.

    Mike Taylor, a marine microbiologist with the University of Auckland, New Zealand, says the study “tells us more about how photosynthetic organisms can survive deep inside sponges” and the nature of their symbiotic relationship.

  3. DÉJÀ VU: A TWITCH IN THE BRAIN

    An epileptic man's daily bouts of déjà vu have supplied new clues to the origins of this unsettling phenomenon.

    The British man, known as MH, has temporal lobe epilepsy from a case of encephalitis. Before a seizure, he has spells lasting up to a minute in which he feels he has already experienced whatever is going on around him.

    Psychologist Akira O'Connor of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and colleagues say there are two prevailing interpretations of what causes déjà vu episodes. The “data-driven” theory holds that a new visual experience can seem familiar if it resembles a past memory. The “top-down” theory describes déjà vu as a twitch in the brain's circuitry that attaches a sensation of memory to anything a person sees.

    After interviewing MH, the authors concluded in the November issue of Brain and Cognition that his experience fits the top-down theory. In fact, says O'Connor, the temporal lobes have been previously connected to sensations of familiarity.

    The “interesting and novel” report shows for the first time that déjà vu can be generated by temporal lobe misfiring—at least in people with epilepsy, says Anne Cleary, a psychologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. But she says it doesn't rule out external visual triggers for nonepileptics.

  4. ART ON THE FLY

    CREDIT: NASSER AZAM

    Artists like to push the limits of creativity. London artist Nasser Azam has gone on to push the limits of physics, creating what he calls the first-ever zero-gravity paintings.

    Azam painted two triptychs labeled “Homage to Francis Bacon” during a 2-hour parabolic flight last July. To prepare for his “Life in Space” project, funded by the Russian Space Agency, Azam underwent 3 days of intensive training in Star City, the cosmonaut facility outside Moscow.

    On the ground, he sketched the works in acrylic paints. Then, during 15 zero-gravity parabolic cycles at an altitude of 7000 meters, the artist, strapped to railings, finished the paintings in nondrippy oil pastels. “It was quite a harsh experience,” says Azam, 45, who managed not to get sick during the flight. Still, he says, “I was quite pleased with the end result.”

    He might well be. Azam, former chief operating officer at Merrill Lynch in London, sold one of the triptychs for $332,500 last month at a Phillips de Pury auction in New York City.

    His next painting adventure: Antarctica.