Newsmakers

Science  09 Jan 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5911, pp. 191
  1. THREE Q'S

    CREDIT: SOURCE: GEORGE CSICSERY

    George Csicsery, a filmmaker in Oakland, California, has won this year's communications award from the American Mathematical Society. Csicsery has directed several independent films with mathematical themes, including Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem (2008)—a biographical documentary about one of the first American women to rise to prominence in mathematics and her role in solving a famous problem—and Hard Problems: The Road to the World's Toughest Math Contest (2008), a documentary about high school students competing in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad.

    CREDIT: PHOTO FROM DOCUMENTARY FILM HARD PROBLEMS: THE ROAD TO THE WORLD'S TOUGHEST MATH CONTEST (2008) BY GEORGE CSICSERY/MAA

    Q: What do you find so interesting about math?

    Principally, I'm interested in the mathematicians. I consider myself a cultural anthropologist.

    Q: What's interesting about mathematicians?

    I'm interested in groups of people who find a way to negotiate their own terms with reality. [Mathematicians] are able to work in a universe that they construct themselves.

    Q: How do you try to capture that on film?

    They're perfectly happy to explain what it is that attracts them to the work, what it is that's beautiful about mathematics. In almost every instance, I've found something that is on the boundary between aesthetics and religion.

  2. TWO CULTURES

    GAME CHANGER. A self-taught designer of low-voltage electrical devices has helped a team from the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, win an international protein-folding contest.

    CREDIT: STEVEN PLETSCH

    Steven Pletsch of Mesa, Arizona, got into the field of protein structure prediction by becoming an ace at a computer game, Foldit, that the UW researchers created and distributed on the Web. The team, led by biologist David Baker and computer scientist Zoran Popović, recruited him to compete last spring in the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), a biannual academic contest between hundreds of scientists trying to predict the structure of 300 proteins based on their amino acid sequences.

    Pletsch, 32, spent up to 30 hours a week, his newborn daughter Lydia cradled in one arm, folding a subset of the CASP puzzles. Pletsch's Foldit team, “Another Hour Another Point,” provided Baker's team with several winning proteins.

    Popović flew Pletsch to Seattle in September to share his insights, which the Foldit developers are now using to improve the game. “What impressed me the most,” says doctoral student Robert Vernon, is that Pletsch has no background in chemical physics but has learned “the same science by experimentation.” Pletsch says his folding future is uncertain. He wants to make time to get an undergraduate degree and, perhaps more problematic, “Lydia has lost interest in watching Foldit.”

  3. ON CAMPUS

    TALK CIRCUIT, SHORT CIRCUIT. Emory University has banned psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff from collecting industry money at certain speaking engagements after investigating his ties to a major pharmaceutical company. The Atlanta, Georgia, university conducted the investigation after U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) accused Nemeroff of failing to report at least $1.2 million of the more than $2.4 million he earned from various companies. Emory focused on GlaxoSmithKline and found that Nemeroff received more than $800,000 that he did not report to Emory.

    In a statement late last month, Emory said that Nemeroff must “seek review and approval” before accepting any paid speaking engagements, and that he can't apply for National Institutes of Health grants for 2 years. He will be permitted to accept payment for talks only at continuing medical education events that are “sponsored by academic institutions or professional societies.” Nemeroff, who has resigned from the chairmanship of his department following the investigation, said in the statement that he had misunderstood the disclosure rules and thought he was following them properly.

  4. SCIENCE AND SOCIETY

    A NEW LENS. On the eve of the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first telescopic observations, the Vatican has launched a new effort to atone for the way it treated him.

    CREDIT: PHOTOS.COM

    In an address on 21 December 2008, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out how Galileo and other scientists have helped to explain the laws of nature. He extended a greeting to astronomers involved in celebrating 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy and touched on the role of astronomical calculations in determining times for prayer.

    In May, representatives from the Vatican Observatory, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and other scientific and religious institutions will gather in Florence, Italy, to take a fresh look at the circumstances that led the Catholic Church to accuse Galileo of heresy and put him under house arrest. The conference is aimed at fostering “a climate of collaboration” between religion and science, “partly in view of the increasingly complex problems arising from recent developments in biotechnology,” says Father Ennio Brovedani, director of the Stensen Institute in Florence. The Vatican officially rehabilitated Galileo in 1992, following a reexamination of documents related to his trial in 1633.

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