Random Samples

Science  12 Dec 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5908, pp. 1615
  1. WHAT'S SMALL, GREEN, AND INTELLIGENT?

    CREDIT: NISSAN

    Meet the Pivo 2, Nissan's compact electric concept car, designed for urban travel with a 360° rotating cabin and wheels that allow the car to scoot sideways for parking. It's one of the stars of the new exhibit “Japan Car: Designs for the Crowded Globe” at London's Science Museum, spotlighting “mobile cells”—small cars fueled by low-polluting electricity or hydrogen and equipped with intelligent driver interfaces.

    Other examples include Toyota's iREAL, a sitting version of a Segway that looks like a futuristic wheelchair, with sensors that alert a driver to obstacles down the road, and Mitsubishi's electrical iMiEV, planned for release next year, that can go 160 kilometers on an overnight charge.

    Key features of these vehicles are their brains. Pivo 2 has a talking “robotic agent” that offers traffic updates and route information and has voice-recognition capability to answer a driver's questions. The agent is personified by a swiveling head mounted beside the instrument panel that nods and shakes to keep the driver in a “positive frame of mind.” “It infers the driver's mood through conversation and facial-monitoring technology,” Nissan says. But can you make it shut up? Nissan doesn't say.

  2. FEATHERED AND TARRED

    CREDIT: SUN MEDIA CORP.

    The expensive process of getting oil from Canada's vast tar sands is not only dirtying the air and water but also threatening millions of migratory birds, according to a report by three environmental groups.

    Mining the sticky sand under the boreal forest in northern Alberta and refining it into crude oil doesn't just destroy bird habitat. As many as 100,000 birds are contaminated by oil or drown each year in tailing ponds, the report says.

    The 14 million hectares that contain oil sands are used by 22 million to 170 million birds each summer for breeding and nesting. Ornithologist Jeff Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative, a U.S. conservation group in Seattle, Washington, and co-authors estimate that over the next 3 to 5 decades, as many as 166 million birds from 290 species might be lost, representing, at worst, a 50% decline in the population. “We wanted to provide an honest assessment of the potential risks of continuing with this development,” Wells says. The report, Danger in the Nursery, calls for a halt to new mining until the impact on birds can be lessened. So far, the industry shows no signs of changing course.

  3. EARTHLY MAGNETISM

    Lost in the South Atlantic Ocean, 1750 kilometers from the nearest coastline, Tristan da Cunha is the world's most remote island. But it made waves in some research circles last month, when Danish scientists cut the ribbon on a new geomagnetic observatory station there.

    CREDIT: DTU

    The island lies within the South Atlantic Anomaly, an elliptical area roughly 560 km across where Earth's magnetic fields are weakest— less than 30 μT, about half the intensity of its strongest regions. The anomaly is “one of the biggest gaps in our current network of ground stations,” says Jürgen Matzka, a researcher at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen. The $385,000 observatory will collect readings every 3 seconds to detect the constant, minute variations in the magnetic field and send the data back to Copenhagen. The new information will help researchers understand how areas of weak geomagnetic force develop and grow, says geophysicist Peter Olson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But major changes in magnetic forces within Earth's core can take years to penetrate the mantle, so “what payoff there will be, will be down the road,” Olson says.

  4. FIT FOR A QUEEN?

    They are listed as “neo-Assyrian gold earrings circa 8th-7th centuries BC,” and Christie's planned to auction them off this week for upward of $50,000.

    CREDIT: CHRISTIE'S

    But the Iraqi government claims the jewelry almost certainly came from the ancient tombs of Assyrian queens discovered in 1990 at Nimrud in northern Iraq. The jewelry was stored in Baghdad's Central Bank until 2003, when it was moved from flooded underground vaults to the Iraq Museum. Elizabeth Stone, a Mesopotamian archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, says British officials alerted archaeologists after spotting the artifacts for sale.

    Christie's says the earrings were taken out of Iraq in 1969, long before the Nimrud excavations. But Donny George Youkhanna, the former head of Iraq archaeology now at Stony Brook, insists they are from Nimrud. Stone also says “they look identical” to the Nimrud earrings. The Iraqi government last week reportedly requested that Christie's halt the sale and return the earrings. They were taken off the block on 4 December; no word yet on their fate.

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