News this Week

Science  25 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5948, pp. 1606

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  1. Human Exploration

    Obama Facing Tough Decision on Whether to Keep Aiming for the Moon

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Not since Richard Nixon sat in the Oval Office has the United States faced a more difficult decision about what to do with its space program. Last week, the chair of a presidential panel on human space flight told two congressional panels that NASA doesn't have enough money to carry out the current plan to build a big rocket to take humans back to the moon and that the United States should consider other destinations and launchers.

    Many lawmakers oppose any major deviation from the plan, laid out by President George W. Bush in 2004, to build a base on the moon using a new launcher system called Constellation. But the White House, eager to put its own stamp on a long-term exploration effort, is drawn to other options described in the panel's executive summary released earlier this month ( For President Barack Obama, who is expected to announce his space vision this fall, the challenge is to find a politically acceptable answer to the question of where NASA should send humans—and how.

    The status quo is not a viable option, says Norman Augustine, the retired aerospace chief who chairs the committee set up this spring by the White House. The United States could “continue the present program until, frankly, it falls off a cliff due to lack of money,” he warned members of the House Science and Technology Committee during its hearing on 15 September. Staying the course, he explained, would require at least $3 billion more a year, although a lunar landing would be delayed far beyond the original target of 2020.

    The Augustine panel—which is still working on its final report—has offered the Administration a series of choices rather than a single recommendation. They range from adding more money to the current Constellation program—a family of launchers that eventually could take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit—to a rocket derived from space shuttle technology. NASA could also contract with private companies to provide rides into orbit. As for where to go, the moon could remain the destination, or NASA could shoot for a more flexible approach that might allow humans to orbit an asteroid or martian moon before eventually landing on Mars.

    There is tentative agreement on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that NASA should stick with the current plan to retire the three aging space shuttles by 2011 but prolong the life of the space station in orbit from 2016 to 2020. To service the station during that interim, NASA would initially buy Russian Soyuz vehicles and then use either commercially developed launchers or a new NASA rocket.

    A coalition of aerospace companies, labor unions, former NASA officials, and Republican and Democratic politicians say that there's nothing wrong with the Bush Administration's space vision that more money couldn't fix. Any alterations, they fear, would jeopardize the precarious support NASA now enjoys in Congress, they say, as well as thousands of skilled jobs. “There needs to be a compelling reason to scrap what we've invested our time and money in over the years,” said Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), chair of the House science committee.

    Legislators fear that building a different launcher and picking a new destination might eventually cost more than the current plan, which has been in the works for several years. “I have no interest in buying a pig in a poke,” says Gordon. So far, NASA has spent some $8 billion on Constellation, and the space agency plans its first prototype test at the end of October. Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who also testified before the House, came down strongly in favor of maintaining the Constellation-to-the-moon plan.

    Sources close to NASA say that the new NASA administrator, Charles Bolden Jr., also favors the current plan. A former astronaut, Bolden was originally scheduled to testify as well but was dropped from the witness list because the Administration has yet to formulate a response to the Augustine options.

    Bolden's stance could put him at odds with White House officials hoping for a more exciting destination than the moon, which Americans reached 40 years ago. Administration officials are also worried that Constellation's technical and financial troubles will grow in coming years.

    Although Augustine refused to take sides despite pointed questioning at the hearings, he repeatedly cited the possibility of using commercial launchers and choosing a different destination. “The flexible path options are particularly interesting to me,” Augustine told the Senate commerce and science committee on 16 September.

    Rather than landing on the moon, which requires an expensive lander system, astronauts could rendezvous with an asteroid to test how to move such a body out of harm's way if it threatens Earth. Or humans on the asteroid-sized moons of Mars could teleoperate rovers on the martian surface. Those moons and asteroids exert only a fraction of the gravitational pull of a planet or Earth's moon and therefore require far less fuel to land on and leave. That's a key consideration in estimating costs.

    The ultimate goal—not likely for 15 to 20 years—would be landing people on Mars. “There's great merit to having some interim milestones along the way to Mars, where you can point to significant scientific and technological accomplishments,” Augustine noted. Although Bush's vision included a string of interim steps, the committee in its public hearings found limited enthusiasm for an Apollo redux.

    However, adding $3 billion a year to NASA's $18 billion annual budget to carry out such missions—whether to the moon or elsewhere—doesn't sit well with a lot of law-makers. “This is no longer the era of Apollo and the Cold War, where the payoffs for advancing the space and moon agenda are entirely clear,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller (D–WV), who chairs the Senate science panel. “Our country does not necessarily have the resources to do everything we want to do.”

    The debate was not supposed to begin in earnest until after the Augustine panel submitted its final report. But Augustine, to the irritation of Administration officials, insisted upon satisfying the panel's mandated 90-day study period and released an executive summary in early September.

    White House officials say they need to digest the full report before drawing up a 5-year budget plan. That task falls to the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget, now hard at work. Their recommendation will then go to Obama, who is expected to announce a new policy by November.

    “The president really has a major decision here,” said Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL), who flew on the space shuttle in 1985 and who played a key role in Obama's selection of Bolden. “I believe [he] will make a bold stroke not unlike President Kennedy,” said Nelson, referring to Kennedy's 1961 pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

    That announcement is expected to kick off a contentious debate next year in Congress. And Obama will need all of his political skills to convince both space supporters and deficit hawks that he's on the right trajectory.

  2. National Institutes of Health

    Grants 'Below Payline' Rise to Help New Investigators

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    A new analysis of the grantsmaking process at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) lifts the veil on how many grant proposals are funded even though they fall below a cutoff based on peer-review scores. The bottom line—at least 19% of NIH's basic research portfolio is funded for reasons that go beyond quality—may stoke simmering concerns about the agency's policy that favors young investigators.

    The finding is part of a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week that examined management practices at NIH's 27 institutes and centers. One touchy question is how often they depart from “priority scores” assigned by peer-review panels. Institutes usually set a “payline” or minimum score that a proposal must receive to be funded. But they also fund proposals below that line, for reasons that include balancing the institute's portfolio and giving new investigators a leg up.

    Until this week, the NIH-wide numbers hadn't been made public. The most surprising aspect of the GAO report, besides the overall number of exceptions, is its discovery of a sudden increase 2 years ago. In 2003, 625 of 6461 R01s, NIH's basic research grant, fell below the quality cutoff. In 2007, the most recent year examined, the total had jumped to 1059 of 5715 awards (see graph).

    Making exceptions.

    In 2007, 18.5% of funded NIH R01 grants missed the quality cutoff, up from 9.7% in 2003—much of the increase for new investigators.


    The GAO report refers to “a substantial increase,” but NIH says it is really nothing to be concerned about. The funded grants are all “reviewed, meritorious applications,” says Sally Rockey, NIH acting deputy director for extramural research. The recent rise, she notes, is due almost entirely to NIH's new policy favoring new investigators aimed at curbing a steady rise in the average age at which an investigator first receives an R01 (Science, 7 November 2008, p. 834).

    Still, the data surprised one observer familiar with NIH's grantmaking process. “There will be people who will say, ‘What the hell's going on here?’” notes molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, who for years has been involved in overhauling the peer-review system. As a staunch proponent of the new investigator policy, however, he's comfortable with the rising number of exceptions.

    Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA), who has also been investigating financial conflicts in medicine, requested the report after questions arose in 2007 about proposals with below-payline scores being funded by NIH's environmental health institute. GAO recommends that the NIH director monitor such exceptions more closely, calling them “an area of potential risk because [institute] directors have latitude.” NIH officials disagree with that remedy, however, and wrote GAO that the institutes already document the reasons for their decisions.

  3. Life Sciences

    A New Biology to Mend Society's Woes

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    When a National Academies panel was created last year to examine where to go next in life sciences, some thought it would focus on biomedicine—or merely ask for more money. So many science advocates were pleased last week when the panel called for a multi-disciplinary initiative to address four major societal problems involving food, energy, the environment, and health. The report likens these goals to sending a man to the moon and the Human Genome Project.

    “I think it's terrific,” says Mary Clutter, former chief of the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) biology directorate and now a consultant. The emphasis on biofuels and crop production is welcome for a chronically underfunded field, says Jeff Dangl of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “As a plant scientist, I'm delighted.”

    Thinking big.

    The “new biology” could help boost crop production, improve biofuels, heal ecosystems, and personalize medicine, an expert panel says.


    The advice comes from a panel funded by NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy to examine how to build on the explosion of biological data from DNA sequencing and other efforts. It was also, in part, a response to Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a 2005 academies report that stimulated Congress to boost funding for physical sciences (Science, 12 December 2008, p. 1623).

    In the report, A New Biology for the 21st Century,* the 16-member panel found that biology has reached “an inflection point” where “many different disciplines” can come together to solve problems, says co-chair Phillip Sharp, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. This includes life scientists, physical scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.

    One program would aim to adapt food plants to any local growing conditions. A second would improve ecosystem monitoring and restoration. A third would combine crop research and microbial engineering to make biofuels a viable alternative to fossil fuels. And a fourth program would use personalized medicine to improve health care. Because the four challenges overlap—all involve complex systems, for example, and food production should not harm the environment—they “cannot be solved in isolation,” says panelist Keith Yamamoto, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

    The initiative should be funded in separate agencies but coordinated, according to the panel, and existing research funding should be expanded to accommodate at least a 10-year initiative. One possible model is the U.S. Global Change Research Program, says panelist Anthony Janetos of the University of Maryland, College Park. Although the report includes no price tag, its discussion of similar projects points to a total budget of at least $2 billion a year.

    Although several science advocacy groups praised the report, some privately expressed skepticism, noting that much of the research sounds familiar and lacks clear endpoints. Sharp argues that these areas are “not being pursued at a scale that will support our national needs.” He also says an interagency initiative would help bridge agency-specific grants systems that deter researchers from crossing disciplines.

    Others noted that the report seems unlikely to have the same impact as the Gathering Storm, which was requested by Congress and endorsed by industry groups. What's more, it comes during a recession. The panelists, however, who have already briefed congressional staffers and White House officials, are optimistic that their report will influence 2011 budgets, and they pledged to stay involved in fleshing out the details. The White House science office declined to comment.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Antplant Ants Are Never Satisfied In tropical forests, certain types of trees serve as homes for ants, providing hollow stems or leaf pouches where the insects can live and raise their young. In return, the ants keep hungry herbivores at bay and occasionally kill surrounding vegetation, creating a clearing around the trees. Tropical biologists have now discovered that sometimes these ants branch out farther, invading other types of trees beyond the clearing. But are they out to destroy—or are they just trying to make new friends?

    And the Solar System's Coldest Spot Is … What's the coldest spot in the solar system? For now, that distinction belongs to permanently shadowed craters near the moon's south pole, according to the first results from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft announced this week at a NASA press conference. Shivering in at a mere 33 degrees above absolute zero, the regions are likely places to find deposits of water ice, a resource that would be in demand if astronauts ever live on the moon.


    Gene Therapy Gives Monkeys Color Vision Squirrel monkeys can now see your true colors, thanks to gene therapy. Researchers have given the colorblind primates full color vision as adults by injecting their eyes with a human gene. The result raises questions about how the brain understands color, and it could eventually lead to gene-therapy treatments for colorblindness and other visual disorders in humans.

    Magnetized Gas Points to New Physics It would be tough to stick it to your refrigerator, but an ultracold gas magnetizes itself just as do metals such as iron or nickel, a team of atomic physicists reports. That cool trick shows that the messy physics within solids can be modeled with pristine gases, the researchers say. But others are skeptical that the researchers have actually seen what they claim.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  5. Profile: Kim Chin-Kyung

    The Force Behind North Korea's New Science University

    1. Richard Stone

    YANJI, CHINA—At the height of the Korean War, a scared 16-year-old boy made a promise as he lay wounded by shrapnel on a battlefield. “I said, ‘God, if you save my life, I will return this love to my enemy,’” recalls Kim Chin-Kyung, who was fighting for the south against the north. Six decades later, the 74-year-old businessman turned university administrator is keeping his word. Last week, Kim was appointed president of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) at a ceremony in Pyongyang to commemorate completion of the $35 million campus, which after 4 years of delays is expected to open in November to the crème de la crème of North Korea's science graduate students.

    Much of the credit for the feat belongs to Kim, who is modeling PUST after another improbable venture he heads: Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST) here in Yanji, capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeastern China. Kim has raised nearly all of the money for both universities from Christian groups in South Korea and the United States. The parallels between the two universities are striking—but PUST is freighted with symbolism. “PUST will be a bridge between the two Koreas,” says Park Chan-Mo, president of the National Research Foundation of Korea and one of three “founding committee chairs” of the new university. (The others are Kim and Malcolm Gillis, former president of Rice University in Houston, Texas.)

    Its ambitions may be lofty, but PUST is starting out modestly. For the first year or so, enrollment will be limited to 150 graduate students in three schools: information technology; industry and management; and agriculture, food, and life sciences. In late 2010 or early 2011, PUST officials say, the university will open two more schools—one for architecture and engineering and one for public health—and begin accepting undergraduates, with a target enrolment of 600 graduate and 2000 undergraduate students by 2012. Construction work has been completed on all academic facilities at PUST's 100-hectare campus in southern Pyongyang's Rakrang district. North Korea's education ministry will handpick students; the incoming class has already been selected, Park says. Most revolutionary of all, in a country with a slick Intranet (Science, 17 September 2004, p. 1701) but a mere handful of closely guarded links to the outside world, PUST students and faculty are supposed to have unfettered Internet access.

    A promise kept.

    North Korea education official Keuk-Mahn Chon appoints Kim as PUST president at a 16 September ceremony.


    PUST also aspires to be a research university. Administrators will gradually bring online an R&D center and a “Pyongyang Techno Park” open to foreign firms—primarily South Korean to start—that invest in the incubator. But research will be constrained by U.S. and European laws that proscribe export of certain scientific equipment and materials to North Korea.

    Those limitations aside, officials on both sides of the divided peninsula have hailed PUST as a way to equip North Korea's young elite with modern skills. “People who are trained now will play a major role in the country when it starts to change—and this is bound to happen, sooner or later,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, who is not affiliated with the venture.

    Man on a mission

    Kim does not have the typical resume of a university president. He took an English name, James, while studying divinity at Clifton Theological College in Bristol, U.K., in the early 1960s. (Clifton merged with two other evangelical colleges to form Trinity College Bristol in 1972.) In 1976, James and Grace, his wife, moved from South Korea to Florida, where they started out as wig importers and gradually built a small fashion empire that included women's shoes and men's clothing stores.

    During a trip to China in 1987, James Kim was permitted to visit ethnic Korean enclaves in China's northeast. While the people he encountered seemed happy, something was missing. “They had elementary and secondary schools, that was it. They needed higher education,” Kim says. “I never dreamed of building a university.” But it dawned on him that this was precisely what he had to do. After several rounds of negotiations with Chinese authorities, in 1988 Kim agreed to establish a 1-year vocational college in Yanji. He raised money from Christian groups in South Korea and the United States to supplement money he and Grace amassed from selling off their Florida businesses, and in 1992 YUST was founded on the hilltop site of what had been a cemetery, where Kim sometimes saw “children playing soccer with skulls.” The next year, in consultation with local authorities, Kim and his formidable fundraising operation helped convert YUST into a 4-year university that now has a student body of about 1800. Two hundred faculty members from 12 countries, along with their families, live in the dorms with the students and share meals. “We care for students like parents,” says Kim, who is often seen roaming the halls and starting conversations with students. During school breaks students perform social work, such as helping at orphanages and nursing homes.

    Soon after YUST opened, North Korea began dispatching delegations to take the measure of the new university just across their northern border, and Kim began paying return visits, sometimes ferrying donations of food and clothing to North Korean orphanages. On one such trip in 1998, Kim, a dual citizen of South Korea and the United States, was accused of being an American spy and was imprisoned. At one point he was told he would be executed, so he hurriedly penned a will and a pledge to donate his organs for medical research in Pyongyang. But Kim was released after 6 weeks in custody, and today he is one of the few foreigners with official permission from North Korea to reenter the country freely.

    Love thy enemy.

    In 1998, Kim expected to die in prison in Pyongyang; now he's about to open a university there.


    Soon after Kim's rehabilitation, officials from North Korea's education ministry resumed their pilgrimages to YUST and in early 2001, to Kim's astonishment, they invited him to create a similar venture in Pyongyang. When Kim floated the idea to his YUST backers, he got a rapturous response—and contributions poured in. As Kim and his flock began drawing up the blueprint for PUST, they based it largely on their experiences in Yanji, incorporating everything from YUST's curriculum and its technopark to the long hallways linking YUST's buildings to protect students from harsh winter winds. “YUST is a steppingstone to PUST in many ways,” says Honghee Debbie Ko, a computer science professor at YUST and recent transplant from Florida.

    As PUST's president, Kim has authority to appoint faculty and staff of any nationality. Although many of the first few dozen foreign faculty members are devout Christians, including Ko and others currently at YUST, administrators have assured North Korea's education ministry that religion will not enter the classroom. They had made a similar guarantee to China. All Chinese universities are owned by the state, and YUST is no exception: It is an autonomous college of Yanbian University, which provides the 16 credits of Communist theory, including Mao Zedong thought, required for graduation in China. “We respect their system and culture. And we do not break the law,” says Kim.

    Whereas YUST's student body is largely drawn from China's ethnic Korean community—a tiny fraction of the country's population—North Korea, says Park, will be sending PUST the brightest grads of its top universities, including Kim Il Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Science and Technology, both in Pyongyang. Such high-level students will require top-notch faculty and a research environment, he says.

    Few Western scientists have hands-on experience in North Korea; some say they hope PUST's opening will help usher in a new era of engagement. According to North Korea's central news agency, in a speech in Pyongyang last month the country's leader, Kim Jong Il, stated that “nationalistic self-respect does not conflict with receiving advanced technology from other countries” and called on his citizens to “plant our feet on North Korean land and look around the world, learning what we can learn and taking in what we can take in.” PUST's opening “underscores the seriousness of recent statements attributed to Chairman Kim,” says Stuart Thorson, a political scientist at Syracuse University in New York state who leads a U.S.-North Korea exchange that helped Kim Chaek create a digital library. “I hope that this bodes well for other academic science cooperation efforts,” he says.

    No one expects an easy road ahead for PUST. Even the dedication ceremony on 16 September was touch-and-go to the last moment. Fuming over the North's failure to apologize for the release of water from a dam earlier this month that killed six South Koreans, South Korea's Ministry of Unification initially forbade its citizens to attend the ceremony. After appeals from Park and others, the ministry relented and a few days before the ceremony, the ministry gave permission for 20 South Koreans to go. Another 90 dignitaries from seven other countries received North Korean visas.

    The experiment is planned to run for at least 50 years: That's the term of the lease North Korea has granted to PUST's administrator, the Northeast Asia Foundation for Education and Culture, a nonprofit with offices in Seoul; Los Angeles, California; Sydney, Australia; and Toronto, Canada. The foundation, which raised the funds for PUST's construction, must come up with another $6 million a year in running costs. Kim doesn't anticipate that being a problem—and no one is about to doubt him. After all, says Ko, “many people think it's a miracle to have gotten this far.”

  6. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Chinese Premier Hu Jintao told delegates at a special session on climate change at the United Nations that China would cut greenhouse emissions relative to economic growth by a “notable margin” by 2020, below 2005 levels. He declined to put a figure on the pledge, though he promised to continue “vigorous” development of green power.

    In a flurry of developments on swine flu preparations, the Obama Administration said vaccine delivery would begin in the first week of October and announced a plan to share vaccine with developing countries, but a study found that young children will likely need two shots for adequate protection.

    A new report highlighted the possibility of producing power using underground coal gasification, which offers commercial and climate benefits.

    The National Institutes of Health has set up a Web site where NIH-funded scientists can fill out a form requesting approval for the use of particular human embryonic stem cell lines, and Director Francis Collins established a task force to advise him on which lines meet new guidelines to qualify for federal funding.

    European Union Commission President José Manuel Barraso has proposed new top-level science positions within the organization, including a science adviser and a commissioner for climate action.

    A biomedical engineer from Stanford University and a climate scientist at Cornell University joined an Insider conversation on how policymakers could make it easier for young scientists early in their careers.

    In an interview with Insider, the first president of the new National Research Foundation of Korea said his organization wants to promote “more creative and higher risk projects.”

    For more science policy news, visit

  7. Germany

    Election Heats Up Nuclear Debate

    1. Gretchen Vogel
    Nuclear Trojan horse?

    Protesters at a rally in Berlin claimed that Angela Merkel's party would undo the country's phase-out of nuclear power.


    BERLIN—A nearly 3-decade-old telex message regarding the scientific evaluation of a disposal site for highly radioactive nuclear waste in Germany has become a prominent issue in the campaign leading up to Sunday's national elections. The telex has sparked charges that scientists in the 1980s bowed to political pressure, and it has heated up the long-simmering debate about the future of nuclear power in Germany.

    For both political and scientific reasons, nuclear waste experts say, Germany needs to redo its hunt for a high-level waste repository. “We have to start a new search to determine whether there is a better alternative or not,” says Karl-Heinz Lux of the Clausthal University of Technology in Germany. A steady stream of revelations about problems at one of the country's repositories for lower-level waste, which had been managed by a prominent research center, has added potency to the issue.

    The debate over storage of high-level wastes echoes the decades-long controversy in the United States over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site, which was defunded by the Obama Administration earlier this year (Science, 20 March, p. 1557). There, too, politics drove the selection of a single, sparsely populated site as a potential repository. In both cases, the perception that politics, not science, drove the site choice has made the fight for public acceptance much harder, says Gerhard Jentzsch, a geologist at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Germany.

    Nuclear power faces widespread skepticism among Germans, in part fueled by memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. In 2002, the country's parliament passed a law mandating the shutdown of the country's existing nuclear plants by 2022. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far accepted that policy and officially all five of Germany's main parties say they will abide by the phase-out, but nuclear energy opponents fear that after the 27 September election, Merkel's Christian Democrats and their preferred coalition partner, the Free Democrats, will extend or scrap the deadline. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Berlin to demonstrate support for the moratorium.

    Out of sites?

    Germany may reconsider this planned waste disposal facility near Gorleben.


    Finding a place to safely dispose of the country's nuclear waste has been the hottest topic. In 1977, the government proposed a large salt dome near the border with what was then East Germany. Located by a village called Gorleben, the site has been controversial from the start, attracting protests every year when waste is transported to a temporary storage facility at the site.

    Among the concerns are that the clay layers covering the dome are too thin in some spots to adequately protect the salt deposits from leaching water. And geologists disagree on whether a salt deposit is the country's best option for the most radioactive nuclear waste. “High-level nuclear waste produces heat, which can draw water out of the salt,” says Jentzsch, who suggests clay deposits may be a better alternative.

    Election-driven politics have now led to new questions about Gorleben. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel confirmed the discovery of a telex message sent in 1983 by government officials to scientists evaluating the site as a potential repository. The message seems to substantiate media charges from earlier this year that scientists were pressured by government officials to alter their report. In a draft report, the researchers had said the site was adequate but should be compared with other possible sites. The final report deleted the recommendation for a comparison.

    Gabriel, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, called the telegram a full-blown scandal. An aide to Merkel initially dismissed its importance, but the chancellor herself said a few days later that she had asked for an investigation into the matter. Officially, Merkel and her party stand by their position that Gorleben is an appropriate site.

    Although it has been colored by election politics, Lux says, the public debate about Gorleben is necessary. “There is no way around the fact that we have to find some final storage site,” he says. Whether politicians decide to continue with the phase-out or not, “the waste is there and has to be dealt with.” The only way to win public support is to start a new search process that would investigate possible alternatives, he says: “Without a comparison, we can't go further with Gorleben.”

    Gorleben's critics have been strengthened by revelations about another salt-based nuclear waste dump nearby. Called Asse II, it has been used since the 1960s to dispose of waste from several of Germany's research institutes. Government authorities took over the site in January after the research center that had been administering it, the Helmholtz Center Munich, failed to inform authorities that brine had been leaching from the complex. Since then, investigators have found evidence that more and higher-level waste than allowed was deposited at the site. Adding a grisly element to the furor, news surfaced last week that the partial cremated remains of two workers killed in a 1975 accident at a nuclear power plant might also have been buried there. Environment Minister Gabriel has estimated that the cleanup and closing of the site could cost as much as €4 billion. “Asse is a catastrophe, both politically and scientifically,” Lux says. “It will take years to rebuild the trust that has been lost in the process.”

  8. Astronomy

    Who Will Pay for China's Planned X-ray Satellite?

    1. Hao Xin

    BEIJING–After spending nearly 2 decades developing China's first space-based observatory, Li Tipei now fears that the project may never get off the ground. The Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) mission is scheduled for launch next year, but with the clock running down, Science has learned that no government agency has stepped forward to pay the estimated $146 million to build the satellite—putting the mission in jeopardy. “It would be a shame for the Chinese scientific community if the project dies prematurely,” says Li, an astrophysicist and chief mission scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) and Tsinghua University here.

    To avert that possibility, Li and supporters are appealing to the highest level of government: In May, 15 academicians petitioned the State Council, and last month, the most senior signatory, 95-year-old nuclear physicist He Zehui, sent a personal note to Premier Wen Jiabao, who heads China's cabinet. “There are not many opportunities in the history of science for making original contributions using truly innovative methods,” she wrote. Astrophysicists are hoping for an 11th hour intervention from Wen to save the mission.


    China may not find the money to follow through with next year's planned launch of the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, which would debut a novel high-energy detector (top).


    The idea for HXMT was born in 1992, when Li and IHEP astrophysicist Wu Mei developed a mathematical method for reconstructing images from spatial data collected by satellite-borne hard x-ray and gamma-ray instruments. Based on their method they proposed HXMT, a telescope in low-Earth orbit that would operate in a wide-field mode to carry out an all-sky survey in the hard x-ray energy range of 20 to 200 kiloelectron volts (keV)—where it would catalog objects such as x-ray binary systems and supermassive black holes—and in a pointing mode to observe known sources and study their variability.

    Because photons with energies above a few tens of keV cannot be focused, imaging for hard x-ray and gamma-ray observations employs a technique called aperture modulation. Imagers aboard the European Space Agency's International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (Integral) and NASA's SWIFT satellite, both now in orbit, use spatial modulation. In this technique, a thick metal plate with a complex two-dimensional pattern—a “coded-aperture mask”—is placed in front of a detector array. X-ray and gamma-ray sources project shadows of the aperture mask onto the detector plane, from which scientists can reconstruct the position, spectrum, and variability of each source over time, explains Pietro Ubertini of the Institute of Space Astrophysics in Rome, who is principal investigator of Integral's imager.

    HXMT, on the other hand, uses a technique called temporal aperture modulation. A “slat collimator” made of parallel metal plates is placed over a flat detector and limits the field of view directly overhead. In survey mode, the collimator would rotate around an axis perpendicular to the detector plane, casting a time-variable shadow onto the detector. Source images are obtained using the sophisticated math Li and Wu devised. HXMT “is a good and simple technology,” says Ubertini, and its imaging sensitivity should be comparable to the more complex imagers aboard Integral and Swift.

    At first, many scientists were skeptical that HXMT would work. It took Li's group almost 15 years to convince critics by demonstrating HXMT's feasibility through a scaled-down model in a balloon experiment, for example, and applying the method to analyze data from satellites such as NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, says Li.

    The Chinese government approved HXMT in 2007 (Science, 16 March 2007, p. 1481) and the State Administration of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND)—the agency in charge of civilian space programs—ranked the mission the highest priority after human space flight and lunar exploration in the country's first-ever 5-year plan for space science.

    But the mission is now in trouble. Li has learned that SASTIND is running out of funds for the current budget period ending in 2010. The finance ministry will not supplement the agency's coffers because ministry officials expect the science academy to step in and provide support using its special fund for innovation. Li says the problem reflects a lack of coordination in China's civilian space program.

    A launch delay could prove costly. NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, slated for launch in September 2011, will take much sharper hard x-ray images than HXMT in the pointing mode, says Joachim Trümper, a retired astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Tübingen, Germany, but he says there is still strong justification to get HXMT into orbit soon. Jonathan Grindlay, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, agrees because “no other wide-field imaging hard x-ray satellite missions are planned” over the next 5 years. Li and others are pinning their hopes on Wen. In China, big projects have always depended more on having a high-level patron than on scientific merit alone.

  9. Psychology

    The Theory? Diet Causes Violence. The Lab? Prison

    1. John Bohannon

    In a more ambitious study than any before, psychologist Bernard Gesch is leading a research team hoping to replicate controversial results showing that nutritional supplements can reduce violence among prisoners.

    Good behavior?

    Polmont prison (left) is home to violent offenders, but nutritional supplements may help keep the peace.


    FALKIRK, SCOTLAND—The officer tenses slightly as he approaches a junction in the corridors that connect buildings in the Polmont prison compound. Two groups of prisoners are about to converge.

    Her Majesty's Young Offenders Institution Polmont is Scotland's most violent prison—based on its record of assaults—but a peaceful atmosphere usually prevails. The officers seem to be on good terms with their charges—about 700 young men between the ages of 16 and 21, many of whom will go on to adult prisons to serve life sentences. When the violence happens, it erupts in a flash, and typically in hot spots like this junction where groups of prisoners encounter each other. The officers usually intervene well before serious damage is done. But not always. There have been stabbings, and some weeks ago a prisoner was sent to the hospital after a kettle of boiling water was thrown in his face.

    The boisterous young men arrive from opposite directions, each led by an officer. Both prisoner groups are from Monro level 4, the ward for those at the highest risk for harm. Some of them are targeted in gang-related feuds. Some carry the dangerous stigma of being sex offenders, referred to as “beasts” by the others. The prison carefully coordinates everyone's movements with a computer system similar to air traffic control. The two lines merge and file past without incident.

    Violence is what landed many of these young men in prison, some for crimes so horrible that they shocked the nation. But violent behavior also brought another group of people to Polmont: a team of scientists.

    At lunchtime, prisoners emerge from their cells and begin gathering at a steaming buffet cart. After piling their trays with a typical meal—bread, sausage, and soup—the prisoners stream by a table staffed by the scientists, all wearing identical bright pink shirts that set them apart from the prison staff.

    One of the young inmates pauses, setting his tray on the table. Lisa Gilmour, a psychologist, finds his name on a list of prisoners who have volunteered for the study. Next to his name is a code that corresponds to a sachet containing his allotments of pills. She gives them to the prisoner and watches as he pops them in his mouth and chases them down with water.

    Those pills were either a standard supplement of vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, or starch placebo pills designed to look and taste just like the supplement. The prisoner has no way of knowing which it was, and neither does Gilmour, because an independent third party randomly assigned the prisoners to the two groups. The officers, who also have no idea which prisoners are in the treatment or control groups, monitor their charges' behavior as usual, recording every infraction from threatening language to physical assault. The goal of this double-blind trial is to definitively answer a question that has bedeviled behavioral science for a century: Are nutritional imbalances a cause of violence?

    Watching silently in the background is the study's leader, Bernard Gesch, a nutrition and criminology researcher at the University of Oxford. To most people outside Gesch's field, his hypothesis—that, simply stated, improving diet helps prevent fights—sounds crazy. But he has evidence to back the claim. In 2002, he published the results of a double-blind trial with more than 200 young prisoners in Aylesbury, England. Those who received nutrient supplements committed significantly fewer violent offenses compared with the placebo group.

    Diet plan.

    Bernard Gesch suggests supplements can stem violence.


    After years of wooing funding bodies and fighting for access to prison populations, Gesch now has an even more ambitious study approved and bankrolled. Impressed by the strength of his earlier results and the rigor of his experimental design, the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust announced last year that it would provide $2.3 million for a nutritional supplement trial involving more than 1000 prisoners from Polmont and two other U.K. prisons. The 3-year trial, which started this spring, includes blood chemistry analysis and a battery of computer-based behavioral and cognitive tests designed to address the question that the earlier study could not: If a balanced diet does stem violence, how exactly does it do so?

    It appears that the nutrition-violence hypothesis is gaining momentum. A study within the Dutch prison service, similar to Gesch's 2002 study, has also recently found that supplements reduce violence. (As Science went to press, that study was in review for publication.) If Gesch's larger study confirms the effect, “policies will have to change,” predicts Stephen Schoenthaler, a nutrition and criminology researcher at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock. But that may be an optimistic view. Decades of studies by Schoenthaler and others have supported a connection between nutrition and violence, but for a variety of reasons—some scientific, others political—it hasn't yet translated into policy.

    You are what you eat

    Reporter's Notebook

    "I don't see how vitamins can stop fights"

    When I visit Polmont prison, it is a peaceful experience, but prison officials take nothing for granted. Walking outside with the prison governor Derek McGill, I notice a knotted line of bedsheets dangling from a top-floor window. A bundle is being passed to the window below. Perhaps it is simply food, but it could be drugs or a weapon. McGill notes the coordinates so officers can search those cells.

    Talking to Polmont's prisoners reveals the messy phenomenon at the heart of the kind of behavioral research Bernard Gesch and his colleagues are conducting. Their crimes may reduce the prisoners to statistics in the penal system, but the young men offer a huge diversity of history and personality. Consider James and Jim, both Scottish 19-year-olds, both serving life sentences for murder, and both volunteers in the new trial of whether nutritional supplements can reduce violent behavior.

    "I ate better before prison," says James quietly. "I was a chef." We sit in a tiny room on his ward, out of earshot of the officers. James has closely shorn, brilliant red hair framing a doughy, boyish face. "It's not that there's not enough," he quickly adds. "It's just not the right type of food, not satisfying somehow."

    When I ask James why he volunteered for the study, his eyes light up. "Because I love science, especially biology." He shares his dream of getting a science degree through a prison program. Suddenly, he runs from the room and returns with a heavy binder from his cell, filled with printouts of articles on everything from forest ecology to stem cells. James says he steers clear of violence in Polmont, "and I don't see how vitamins can stop fights." The cause of violence isn't diet, he says point-blank. "It's psychology."

    An officer takes me to a ward upstairs to interview Jim. Although he is leaner than James, and the tiny room is identical to the one below, Jim seems to fill it. "The food is [excrement]," he blurts, slumping into the chair with his legs thrown out in front of me. When I ask if his diet was better before prison, he shrugs and shakes his head.

    Jim is one of the most violent prisoners in Polmont, and he's proud of it. "I never lose a fight," he says with a big grin, his crooked teeth pointing everywhere. Recent damage shows on his face and knuckles. I ask Jim why he's volunteering for a study that counts his own scabs and bruises as data. "I need the vitamins," he says. "The food is [extremely bad]," he curses colorfully. And yet, Jim suspects that he's in the placebo group. "I've been in more fights. Lots more." But he knows that, like all the volunteers, he'll receive 3 months of real nutritional supplements once the study concludes.

    I ask Jim why he fights. "Maybe someone calls me a 'dafty.' Maybe someone looks at me too long. Doesn't matter. That's it. I have to." He admits that he pays a high price. He spent a month in solitary confinement for badly beating another prisoner. But Jim will never stop fighting. "I'm good at it," he says, cracking another grin.

    “The idea of a link between diet and antisocial behavior is not new,” says Gesch. As far back as 1892, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso reported that many bomb-throwing terrorists suffered from pellagra—malnutrition due to a corn-based diet deficient in vitamin B-3—and proposed a connection. But nutrition-violence theories didn't gain traction until chemistry and physiology began to reveal molecules in food that could regulate hormones and neurotransmitters—and thus conceivably behavior. By the 1960s, some argued that nutrition can not only cause behavioral problems but cure them; Nobel Prize–winning chemist Linus Pauling made the case for “orthomolecular psychiatry” in Science (19 April 1968, p. 265), defining it as “the treatment of mental disease by the provision of the optimum molecular environment for the mind.” According to Pauling, psychological disorders as severe as depression and schizophrenia could be fully treated with the right balance of vitamins and micronutrients.

    Pauling's proclamation symbolizes a problem in this area of behavioral research. “This field has seen a lot of exaggerated claims and not enough solid placebo-controlled research,” says Eugene Arnold, a psychiatrist and former director of the Nisonger Center at Ohio State University, Columbus. Studies have shown that “there clearly is a connection” between nutrients and behavioral disorders—for example, between nutrition and depression—but rigorous research has been the exception, he says. Most studies of the effects of nutrition on antisocial behavior are dismissed because of poor experimental design. And Arnold notes that misleading claims by the booming nutrient supplement industry have brought the taint of pseudoscience to those studying diet and behavior. “Even good scientists in this field have been treated as guilty by association,” he says.

    Into this skeptical atmosphere entered Gesch, who certainly didn't see nutrition or behavioral research on his horizon when he went to university. “I trained as a physicist, but all the job prospects seemed to be in weapons,” he says. “I wanted to make a positive difference, so I went into social work.” In the mid-1980s, while working with young offenders in Cumbria, England, Gesch stumbled upon a simple but surprisingly effective strategy. “I invited them over for meals,” he says. “We cooked and ate together around a table like a family.” The goal was to get the young offenders to open up and share crucial information, such as the troubles in their family and school environments. Gesch says the youngsters transformed, becoming healthier and often abandoning the antisocial behaviors that had gotten them into trouble. He began to believe that shedding their scattershot diets of junk food was central to the behavioral shift, perhaps even more so than the family-like socializing.

    Over the next decade, diet and behavior became Gesch's obsession. He founded a program to handle dietary education as part of criminal sentencing. He also created a charity, called Natural Justice, dedicated to researching the links between nutrition and criminal behavior and getting those insights translated into policy. In 1995, eager to rigorously test his idea, the then-36-year-old stood before hundreds of convicts in Aylesbury prison. The governor had agreed to let him run a double-blind study with nutritional supplements, but Gesch would have to persuade the prisoners to volunteer himself.

    On the menu.

    A typical meal at Polmont prison.


    Gesch has piercing blue eyes and a neat crop of blond hair that tends to stand up like a cock's comb as the day wears on. “I yelled myself hoarse,” he recalls with a laugh. The prisoners wouldn't listen to him.

    Gesch switched to a subtler tactic. “I asked around to find out who the ‘daddy’ was, the biggest, toughest guy around,” he says. A one-on-one meeting allowed Gesch to make his case. “I just explained that the study was completely in their own interest, and that it had nothing to do with the prison staff or the government,” he says. Once that prisoner signed on, 231 others voluntarily took part over the course of the 2-year study.

    The results, published in 2002 in The British Journal of Psychiatry, revealed a significant effect: Prisoners given nutritional supplements committed 35% fewer violent incidences than those given the placebo. Gesch braced himself for a wave of doubt and criticism, but “the reception was surprisingly positive. Even the press treated us kindly,” he recalls. “There was clearly something there,” says Stephen Wong, a veteran criminal psychologist and visiting scholar at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham, U.K. “It needed to be replicated.”

    Easier said than done. Getting permission to run a ramped-up version of the 2002 study in U.K. prisons required “years of lobbying,” says John Stein, a physiologist at the University of Oxford who is co-leading the current trial with Gesch. The reason, says David Ramsbothom, former chief inspector of the U.K. prison service, is “an enormous amount of resistance to any effort to improve prisons, in part because of simple-minded, ‘get tough on crime’ politics.”

    But once the prison system permissions were secured, Gesch's grant application was approved by the Wellcome Trust in a matter of months. “We are all used to nutritional guidelines for our physical health, but this study could lead to revisions taking into account our mental health as well,” announced Wellcome Trust Director Mark Walport.

    The recipe for violence

    Polmont's prisoners universally complain that meals are neither tasty nor fresh, and it's no wonder why. The food budget amounts to a few dollars per prisoner per day. And by the time it travels from the central kitchen facility, through the layers of security and up to each ward's dining area, foods such as fried potatoes are lukewarm and limp. Still, the prison governor, Derek McGill, says he never suspected that the prison food itself might be a cause of violence.

    There are nearly as many theories for how nutrition affects behavior as there are nutrients in the body. For example, Adrian Raine, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is testing whether supplements of omega-3 fatty acids in particular can reduce anti-social behavior by helping young brains mature properly. Stein also proposes a role for omega-3's, noting that these acids are required in large amounts by Magna cells, a type of neuron crucial for attention and impulse control. Other nutrition-violence theories look to the vitamin B complex, which is crucial for everything from brain tissue maintenance to learning. Gesch and Stein hope that data from the study's blood sampling and behavioral testing will ultimately reveal which of more than two dozen nutrients—interacting with as many behavioral traits—makes a difference in violent behavior (see table, below).


    They don't expect a simple answer. “Nutrition is about balance,” says Gesch. “It's not like pharmacology.” But even if the biochemistry of violent behavior turns out to be too complex to tease apart from the data, some key insights may emerge. “Control of impulsivity may turn out to be very important,” notes Stein. For example, a nutritional imbalance could suppress the ability to resist punching someone in the face in spite of strong emotions of fear or anger. If so, then prisoners who receive the nutritional supplements should do better than the placebo group on an impulsivity “stop-go” test—challenging prisoners to respond to “go” signs as quickly as possible while also heeding “stop” signs—that Gesch's team is administering before and after treatment.

    One of the subjects in the study proposes a similar hypothesis himself. “It comes down to a moment—you can hit someone or just walk away,” says Craig, a towering 19-year-old with gang tattoos who is serving a 9-year sentence for culpable homicide. “And diet definitely makes a difference.” He was one of several prisoners who shared their perspective on prison food and violence with Science (see the reporter's notebook, above).

    So far, the scientists working in Polmont have experienced violence themselves only once. One of the prisoners pulled out a plastic knife and threatened one of the researchers out of frustration. “He wanted his pills immediately,” says Gesch. No one was harmed.

    No simple solutions

    Criminology researchers agree that Gesch and Stein's study should settle the question of a connection between diet and violence—at least for prison populations. But even if it does, the debate over what to do with that knowledge is just getting started.

    For some, the answer is already clear. “The [nutrition-violence] effect is obviously real, and it has been researched for 30 years,” says Iver Mysterud, a behavioral psychologist at the University of Oslo in Norway. “The policy implications are obvious: Get rid of sugar and highly processed foods, improve the diet,” and for prisoners with nutrient imbalances, “give [them] supplements with minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids.”

    Others are withholding judgment until the new data are in. “I'm skeptical, mainly because so many other assertions of vitamins on health and well-being have been proved wrong,” says Randy Nelson, a neuroscientist at Ohio State University, Columbus, who specializes in the mechanisms of aggression. “However, the study design is very good and the preliminary data seem compelling.” If prison violence can be prevented through diet, then “government agencies ought to put this into policy actions as soon as possible.”

    Why stop at prisons? If the nutrition-violence effect is confirmed with prisoners, could poor diet explain some of the violence and antisocial behavior in schools, or even in neighborhoods? Many researchers have argued this, but the link may not hold for the wider community, says Mysterud. Only a double-blind nutrition study in a community setting could settle that. Some are already under way, such as Raine's study of omega-3 supplements with children in Singapore and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with plans for another in Mauritius.

    But Gesch and others stress that improving diet can be only part of the answer to violence and antisocial behavior. “Nutrition sounds like a silver bullet,” says Wong. “But crime control has no simple solution.”

  10. Astronomy

    Exotic Telescopes Prepare to Probe Era of First Stars and Galaxies

    1. Daniel Clery

    Radio telescopes that substitute antenna arrays for dishes are gearing up to look back to the brink of the "dark ages" that followed the big bang.

    Wired up.

    Low-band antennas of the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR).


    All this year, strange structures have been sprouting in the fields of northern Holland. Low gray boxes and what appear squat flagpoles held up by guy wires cluster in geometric patterns that look like landing sites for alien spacecraft. Their real purpose is only slightly less otherworldly: They are components of a giant radio telescope gearing up to probe the early history of the universe. With it and similar instruments, astronomers hope to peer back in time to when some of the earliest stars flared into life, and beyond that into the unexplored “dark age” of the cosmos.

    The Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) is the largest of a new breed of telescope that will observe the sky via long-wavelength radio waves. Unlike conventional radio telescopes—huge movable dishes that point in one direction at a time—these new scopes are made of simple cheap antennas that pick up signals from all directions and then use sophisticated digital signal processing to “steer” a beam at the desired patch of sky. In fact, such a telescope can look at many parts of the sky at once, carving the received signal into multiple beams. “The antennas are extremely simple, but there is a lot of technology behind them,” says Michiel van Haarlem, LOFAR's managing director. Similar instruments are either starting work or under construction in China, Australia, and the United States.

    These versatile new scopes can survey and catalog the low-frequency sky, monitor fast-changing radio sources, study the sun and space weather, and track ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays as they hit Earth's atmosphere. But the goal that has scientists buzzing is the prospect of venturing into cosmology's terra incognita. The time from the release of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation 400,000 years after the big bang until some 850 million years later, when the superbright galaxies known as quasars became visible, is a closed book to cosmologists. This is a critical period of the universe's development, during which it evolved from a near-uniform cloud of neutral hydrogen gas into a gallery of stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies.

    Cosmologists can only simulate what might have happened during this time because they have no data. “Simulations can get things wrong. We have no real idea how these things evolved,” says Michael Garrett, director of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. This ignorance leaves a raft of questions. What were the first luminous objects like, and when did they form? Did large galaxies emerge fully formed from the primordial gas clouds, or did minigalaxies merge to make larger ones? And what, during that unseen period, caused the neutral hydrogen that emerged from the big bang to become ionized again? This era “is a tremendous potential source of information,” says Martin Rees, a theorist at the University of Cambridge and Britain's Astronomer Royal.

    The creators of LOFAR and its kind are confident they can at least begin to answer these questions. If they succeed, similar but more powerful telescopes will soon follow. Many in the field liken it to the early days of studying the CMB. “The CMB produced several Nobel Prizes. I'd be surprised if [this] didn't do the same,” says Garrett.

    Into the dark

    During the early millennia following the big bang, the universe was a hot, roiling fireball of subatomic particles and photons. Within 400,000 years, it had cooled enough for protons to pair up with electrons and form neutral hydrogen atoms, an era known as cosmic recombination. Neutral hydrogen could not absorb the low-energy photons that then pervaded the universe, and so space became transparent. Those photons—the CMB—are still flying through space and provide a snapshot of that moment in the universe's history. After recombination, things went quiet for a long time because there were no bright sources of light, just a diffuse, almost featureless cloud of hydrogen. “It's one part of cosmic time we don't have any information on,” says Garrett.

    That quiet gaseous state did not last. Gravity began working very slowly on slight variations in density in the gas cloud, pulling the matter in the denser regions closer together. Theorists believe the major player in this process was dark matter, the unknown substance thought to make up 85% of the universe's mass. Once you get clumps of dark matter as big as 100,000 solar masses, simulations suggest, stars will begin to form within them. According to some models, the first stars may have turned on just 30 million years after the big bang, when the universe was less than 0.25% of its current age.

    As the universe continued to evolve, the dark matter clumps got larger and encouraged the growth of galaxies and galaxy clusters. Theorists once thought that the hydrogen gas outside these dark-matter clumps, the intergalactic medium, would remain undisturbed, but observations of the IGM show that it has been ionized as far back as we can see, to when the universe was 850 million years old. So something in the era of the first stars and galaxies shone brightly enough to ionize all the hydrogen in the universe. Suspects include so-called population III stars, stellar giants that burned bright and fast in the early universe; some sort of miniquasars; or even something more exotic such as decaying dark matter. This “epoch of reionization” (EOR) is now one of the main targets of LOFAR and similar instruments. “We want to understand when the first sources turned on, how they formed and where, and how structures formed on a cosmological scale,” says theorist Avery Meiksin of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

    Stars and galaxies of that era are too faint for us to see today, but the new telescopes are not looking for starlight. Instead, they aim to detect a subtle difference between neutral hydrogen and ionized hydrogen. Both electrons and protons have a quality referred to as spin, and when they are combined in a hydrogen atom, the two spins can be either parallel or antiparallel. The parallel state has a slightly higher energy than antiparallel, so when the atom flips from the former to the latter, it emits a photon with a wavelength of 21 centimeters. Similarly, absorbing a 21-cm photon will flip the atom from antiparallel to parallel.

    Ionized hydrogen, which has no electrons, neither emits nor absorbs 21-cm photons. So, the theory goes, if astronomers used a telescope to look at this 21-cm radiation in the millennia following recombination, first they would see a largely uniform signal from the neutral hydrogen, then later it would appear riddled like Swiss cheese with “bubbles” of ionized gas surrounding early stars and galaxies. Eventually, these bubbles would merge and finally fill all of space with ionized gas. By mapping the history of reionization in this way, astronomers could refine their theories about what caused it. “Because of the complex astrophysics within galaxies, it's not really predictable how the transition happened. The observations could surprise us,” says theorist Rennan Barkana of Tel Aviv University in Israel.

    Terra incognita.

    Astronomers and cosmologists have no data about the “dark ages,” when the first stars, galaxies, and large-scale structures formed. The new generation of long-wavelength radio telescopes will try to peer into the era of the first galaxies.


    LOFAR and its kin won't look for the 21-cm photons that hydrogen molecules emit; those signals are so weak they would be swamped by closer sources of radiation. Instead, astronomers will watch for signs that hydrogen is absorbing 21-cm radiation. To spot such “absorption lines,” they will need another source of radiation to act as a backlight. One possibility is the CMB, a small part of which has a wavelength of 21 cm; another is to use radio-loud quasars that formed early in the EOR to illuminate stages that came later. Because the universe is expanding, the redshift will have stretched the 21-cm radiation to a wavelength of 1.5 to 10 meters by the time the signal reaches Earth—exactly the range in which telescopes such as LOFAR are most sensitive.

    A new kind of telescope

    The idea of trying to detect the 21-cm signal has been kicking around for decades, but astronomers had largely ignored this part of the spectrum because the long wavelengths would require huge dishes and would achieve poor results in angular resolution. Also, this frequency range is riddled with terrestrial noise, in particular the FM radio waveband, which is slap in the middle of it. But a number of theory papers in the 1990s and advances in digital signal processing encouraged astronomers to take a shot at it. In the late 1990s, astronomers at the ASTRON institute in Dwingeloo, the Netherlands, designing the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a radio telescope to be built in Australia or South Africa starting in 2014, latched on to the idea of building a prototype scope for 21-cm radiation. They teamed up with several research groups in the United States to form the original LOFAR collaboration.

    In 2003, the Dutch government offered the ASTRON team €70 million to build the telescope in northeast Holland. Some of the U.S. partners had favored remote sites in New Mexico or Australia to avoid FM interference. But the ASTRON team reckoned that with clever design and signal processing, it would be possible to operate LOFAR in the noisy environment of the Netherlands. Their partners thought the risk too great, and the collaboration broke up. “It was affected by politics. What can you do?” asks Barkana.

    ASTRON pushed ahead, testing antenna designs in the field, before beginning main construction this year. The plan is for ASTRON to build 36 antenna stations, each the size of a football field; 18 will form a compact core near the town of Emmen, and another 18 will be positioned across northern Holland. Each station sports 96 low-band (30–80 MHz) antennas, the squat flagpoles, and 48 high-band (120–240 MHz) antenna tiles, the low gray boxes, each containing 16 antennas. New international partners—Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, and perhaps others—will host additional stations to increase the baseline area of the telescope, improving its angular resolution. “It's a plug-and-play system. If you have a fast connection and a field, you can join in,” says Rob Fender of the University of Southampton, head of the U.K. LOFAR team.

    Getting the antennas in position, however, is the easy part. Managing the flood of data is when it gets hard. The full set of antenna stations, Fender says, will produce as much raw data as CERN's Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. LOFAR does not have the computing resources to archive that much data, so computers at each station will validate and process data on the fly, winnowing it down by more than 90%. The resulting data streams are sent via a fiber-optic network to the University of Groningen, where an IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer correlates them and begins the complex task of subtracting various foreground signals, leaving data products that astronomers can study.


    Garrett says six stations, including the first of five German stations, are complete and sending data. “Each few weeks more stations come online,” he says, adding that the telescope should be completed next year. The Groningen computer has constructed LOFAR's first images, of bright radio sources at cosmological distances. “The data look fantastic. The quality is breathtaking,” Garrett says. Some frequencies are affected by interference, he says, but he's confident that LOFAR's digital processing can handle them. Conventional radio astronomy will start soon; collecting enough data to distinguish the faint EOR signal will take longer. “We will learn over years how [interference] will affect sensitive measurements like the EOR,” Garrett says.

    Meanwhile, other telescopes are also gearing up to search for the 21-cm signal. LOFAR's nearest rival may be the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a telescope being built in Western Australia. The project is led by some of the original LOFAR collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Haystack Observatory, now teamed up with other researchers in the United States, Australia, and India. Colin Lonsdale, director of Haystack, says they have built a “late-stage prototype” and plan to finish the array during 2010. LOFAR's huge collecting area and high resolution make it a general-purpose, low-frequency observatory, Lonsdale says. MWA, by contrast, is optimized for the EOR. Although it has lower angular resolution, its wider field of view is better matched to collecting statistical information about reionization, Lonsdale says.

    Another contender is the 21 Centimeter Array (21 CMA) in western China. Originally the brainchild of Jeffrey Peterson of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Ue-Li Pen of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto, the array began as a collaboration with Chinese researchers who eventually took over the project. The 21CMA was completed in 2006 and has been taking data, but Peterson says funding problems have made its observations sporadic.

    Cosmological tomography

    Although these first-generation low-frequency telescopes will be able to form images of closer radio-emitting objects, they probably won't collect enough photons to image any features in the 21-cm signal. But their statistical measurements will still provide valuable information for cosmologists. The longer radiation spends traveling through space, the more the redshift lengthens its wavelength. So by looking at the 21-cm signal in different wavelengths, astronomers can effectively follow it forward and backward in time. Measuring the signal's intensity at different wavelengths should enable them to track the disappearance of the universe's neutral hydrogen during the EOR.

    Researchers also hope to extract power spectra, measures of how the signal power varies over different angular scales. These spectra can reveal a number of things, such as the extent of clumps of hydrogen collapsing under gravity, the size of bubbles of ionized gas around the first galaxies, and areas where early sources have heated up the intergalactic hydrogen. Such information, Lonsdale says, will help theorists to improve their theories of the history of the EOR. “It'll take at least 3 years to accumulate data and understand it. We'll get detection but not details,” says Meiksin.

    Such results will likely just whet cosmologists' appetite to delve deeper into the EOR with bigger, more powerful telescopes. “If we detect the EOR, anything can happen,” says Garrett. One obvious candidate for a second-generation machine is the SKA, whose design—which is still in development—will include antennas designed for low frequencies. An EOR telescope of that size would take observations to a whole new level. It would be able to image the ionized bubbles as they formed around new galaxies. And by varying the wavelength of the images, researchers can perform tomography, imaging slice after slice at different distances to build up a three-dimensional map of the ionizing universe. “With SKA we'll really start answering questions,” Meiksin says.

    And astronomers are already thinking about what might come after that. In a worst-case scenario, LOFAR and its kind “could illustrate that we can't do this from the ground,” says Joseph Lazio of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. So several groups are starting to design telescopes for the far side of the moon. Such a project could make use of NASA's upcoming Ares heavy-lift launcher to deliver a package of material to land robotically on the far side. An autonomous rover would then distribute antennas over a 10-kilometer area, leaving a central processing and communications center at the landing site. There, far from earthbound radio transmitters and the distorting effects of the ionosphere, astronomers could peer straight into the heart of the universe's dark age. “It would allow us to see hydrogen before it became complicated by stars, galaxies, and quasars—a complex astrophysical brew—when the imprint of cosmological processes would be much easier to measure,” says Lonsdale. From such a vantage point, we would get a view of the universe before stars were born.

  11. Geophysics

    Scoping Out Unseen Forces Shaping North America

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    As it sweeps across America, the USArray network of seismometers is revealing an impressive but often befuddling subsurface menagerie of slabs, drips, and plumes.

    Down to work.

    Seismologists are continually transplanting their subterranean seismometers to paint a seismic image of the deep Earth.


    Unlike geologists, who can reach only a few kilometers below Earth's surface, geophysicists routinely probe thousands of kilometers down in search of the ultimate forces that created and still shape the ground we tread. But so far, geophysicists' picture of Earth's interior has been maddeningly fuzzy. To sharpen it, they are scanning the deep subsurface as never before, pushing a fly's-eye-like network of seismometers across the lower 48 U.S. states. Researchers “are jumping up and down” with all the new data, says seismologist Edward Garnero of Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe. “We're pretty ecstatic.”

    And sometimes they're pretty bewildered. “There are so many [imaged] structures under the western U.S.,” says seismologist Eugene Humphreys of the University of Oregon, Eugene. It's like “we just wandered into a dark room and someone turned on the lights. We're struggling to make sense of it.” Clearly, the great blobs and chunks of rock rising, sinking, or just floating beneath the surface bear some relation to overlying mountains, basins, and volcanic outpourings, but even the avalanche of new data can't always resolve exactly what the imaged features are or how they are shaping the surface.

    A creepy-crawler camera

    The data surge comes courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF's) $25-million-a-year EarthScope program, now early in its second 5-year run. EarthScope's three-pronged approach is creating an evolving three-dimensional picture of the North American continent. In one component, researchers drilled through the San Andreas fault (Science, 12 October 2007, p. 183). In the second, they are gauging the changing strain on the crust as it is deformed by deep stirrings and jostling tectonic plates.

    EarthScope's third component—the $13.6-million-a-year USArray program—looks much deeper. The USArray system records seismic waves from distant earthquakes after they've passed through—and been altered by—the rock beneath North America. USArray involves three kinds of seismic networks: a Reference Network of 100 seismometers permanently installed 300 kilometers apart in a loose grid across the lower 48 states; a Flexible Array of 446 seismometers that are typically placed 10 kilometers or so apart for a few months or years to study a feature of particular interest; and the novel Transportable Array, an 800-kilometer-wide net of 400 advanced seismometers 70 kilometers apart.

    What a drip!

    Seismic waves that are slower or faster than normal (blues or reds, top) can create a 3D image (blue, bottom) of a sinking “drip” tilted by “blowing” mantle rock (dashed arrows).


    The novelty of the Transportable Array is its combination of broad coverage, relatively dense instrument spacing, and mobility. The array started out hard against the West Coast in 2004 and has been steadily creeping eastward. Today its net spreads 2000 kilometers along the Rocky Mountains from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. Each month, about 18 instruments on the west side of the array that have collected a couple of years' worth of data are removed from their 2-meter-deep vaults and reinstalled on the east side. Reusing the equipment keeps the project affordable. Over the course of 10 or 12 years, the Transportable Array will occupy 1600 locations from coast to coast. Since 2004, all of USArray has generated 14.3 terabytes of data, nearly as much as the Global Seismographic Network has produced since 1988.

    The more data collected and the more closely spaced the instruments, the sharper the pictures of the interior. The most heavily used seismic imaging technique—seismic tomography—works like a computed tomography (CT) scan of the human body. In a CT scan, different body parts absorb x-rays to different extents; in seismic tomography, it is rock's varying effect on the velocity of seismic waves that paints the picture. Waves pass through colder rock faster, for example—yielding a patch of blue in tomographic images—and through hotter rock more slowly, rendered as red.

    A deep zoo

    For the first time, seismic tomographers are incorporating substantial amounts of USArray data into images of the deep western United States. Already, the new images have added fuel to a long-running debate over the existence of mantle plumes (Science, 22 September 2006, p. 1726). One contingent of researchers studying tomographic images had seen these tall columns of hot rock rising thousands of kilometers from deep in the lower mantle like smoke from a stack. Where plumes reach the surface, those researchers say, the rising hot rock melts and feeds hot spots like the volcanoes of Hawaii or Iceland or the geysers and boiling pools of Yellowstone. But other scientists saw hot rock extending no deeper than a few hundred kilometers and considered hot spots the products of tectonic plate interactions, not heat from the deep interior.

    The putative plume beneath Yellowstone was among the most suspect of some 30 proposed plumes (Science, 3 January 2003, p. 35). But with USArray it's coming back. Tomographer Richard Allen of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues reported at last December's meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) that Transportable Array data add to evidence of a seismically slow zone beneath Yellowstone extending to a depth of at least 1000 kilometers.

    “The whole history of mantle plumes makes you hesitate,” says Allen. Still, he says, “I feel pretty confident about a plume to lower mantle depths.” Unlike the bolt-upright columns geoscientists imagined when they first conceived of plumes in the 1970s, Allen says, his group's Yellowstone plume slants to the northwest through the upper mantle and balloons into a much broader slow zone below 660 kilometers in the lower mantle. It even seems to have torn the cold slab of oceanic plate sinking eastward through the upper mantle under the continent.

    Eastward ho.

    The 400 seismometers of the Transportable Array will soon move out of the West and reach the Atlantic Ocean by 2013.


    Other researchers, however, see different pictures. Seismologist Matthew Fouch of ASU Tempe agrees that there's “no clear evidence of a simple mantle plume” beneath Yellowstone. Rather than a contorted columnar plume, Fouch and colleagues say, their processed seismic data show a bent, thin “hot sheet” extending between shallow and deep blobs of hot rock. But when seismologist Rob van der Hilst of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge looks at his and others' tomographic images, he finds that “it's hard to say if [the hot feature] is continuous.” Whether there's a single tall plume or a random series of unconnected blobs “is still up in the air,” he says.

    Some other creatures in the tomographic zoo are proving easier to interpret. Recognized decades ago, the Isabella Anomaly is a blob of rock lying 70 kilometers to 250 kilometers beneath the western edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains of central California. Seismic waves pass through it unusually fast, prompting speculation that it is denser due to the composition of its rock. That higher density might have made it fall away (or drip away, as geophysicists say) from the base of the Sierra Nevada. Relieved of that burden, the less dense crust could have floated up to form high mountains.

    In part to test the Sierra Nevada drip idea, seismologists led by George Zandt of the University of Arizona, Tucson, superimposed the Flexible Array on the Transportable Array as it was passing over the Isabella Anomaly. The sharpened view showed a narrower anomaly than before, which allowed the group to calculate a density for the anomaly's rock. It turns out to be so dense that it must contain just the kind of rock hypothesized to have dripped away from the base of the Sierra Nevada, Zandt, William Levandowski of the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, and the rest of the group reported at the AGU meeting. The group concludes that the drip could have triggered the Sierra Nevada's uplift.

    Other seismic anomalies both fast and slow are now getting close looks in USArray data. In the June issue of Nature Geoscience, seismologist John West of ASU Tempe, Fouch, and colleagues reported that they had discovered a 500-kilometer-tall drip beneath south-central Nevada, tilted to the northeast by slowly flowing mantle rock “blowing” in that direction. The flow of the Great Basin Drip tugging on the crust would explain a mysterious patch of crust under compression amid the Great Basin's pervasive crustal extension, the group says, although others see mantle flowing around a slab fragment rather than a drip.

    The Aspen Anomaly, a stretch of rock that slows seismic waves dramatically, sits directly beneath 80% of Colorado's 14,000-foot-(5100-meter)-and-higher peaks as well as the ore-rich Colorado Mineral Belt. Researchers presume there's a connection between the anomaly and the mineralized uplift, but it remains unproven. And the High Lava Plains of southeastern and central Oregon—the world's largest volcanic province of the past few million years—must be guarding the secret of their origins somewhere beneath them in a mix of sinking slab fragments, a possible plume tail, and flowing mantle rock that's showing up in the latest data.

    All together now

    At the midpoint of the Transportable Array's cross-country march, researchers wish USArray were yielding more insights and prompting less squabbling. “We're getting a clearer vision in the West,” says van der Hilst, but “when you look at the details, people do see different things. The [tomographic] models allow for different interpretations.” Fouch notes that with each group's different processing of the same data, “you can let tomography become a Rorschach test.”

    Researchers say they'll soon find better ways to interpret USArray observations. “It's such an unwieldy mass of data,” says geophysicist Craig Jones of CU Boulder. “Playing with it is a different game than we're used to. I have a feeling we'll be seeing in the next 5 years analyses far more imaginative than what we've done so far.” Some innovative new techniques are already on the horizon. For one, seismologists are starting to use background seismic noise generated by ocean waves—so-called ambient noise—to form tomographic images.

    And then there are the geologists. EarthScope was originally supposed to bring geophysicists and geologists together (Science, 26 November 1999, p. 1655). Funding short-falls early in EarthScope frustrated the marriage, but now NSF is managing to fund more geological work in and out of EarthScope. Relating geological traces at the surface to underlying seismic anomalies could help explain why there's such a weird assortment of still-active deep processes shaping the surface of the American West.

  12. Round and Round: A Guide to the Carbon Cycle

    1. Dennis Normile

    The atmosphere is only one component in an enormous complex of nested physical and chemical processes, some of which remain poorly understood. Science offers this user's guide to the carbon cycle.

    Download the Guide

    A guide to the carbon cycle

    Download the PDF version of the visual guide to the carbon cycle.

    Carbon continuously cycles through living creatures, the atmosphere, the oceans, and Earth itself in one of nature's more amazing balancing acts. The main building block of life, carbon is fixed into terrestrial and marine other organisms tissue through photosynthesis. Animals eat other organisms and burn carbohydrates for energy, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) through respiration and through decay after death. For much longer than humans have walked the earth, carbon generation has roughly equaled carbon consumption. But humankind has tipped the scales, adding CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels—the products of eons of accumulated plant matter transformed into coal and oil by geologic processes.

  13. Carbon Sequestration

    Science has created a map showing some of the major carbon capture and storage projects around the world, either completed, in operation, or scheduled for the near future.

    Download the Map

    Carbon Sequestration map

    Download the PDF version of the Carbon Sequestration map.

    To slow the atmospheric buildup of CO2, a report from the U.S. National Research Council recently called for building a suite of 15 to 20 power plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS) before 2020. “The urgency of getting started on these demonstrations to clarify future deployment options cannot be overstated,” the report said. Today, a few such projects are under development. Most aim either to bury CO2 separated from natural gas reservoirs or to pump it into oil reservoirs to push out more oil. This map shows some of the major CCS projects around the world.

  14. China Grapples With A Burning Question

    1. Josh Fenn*

    Two new projects, one in Inner Mongolia and the other in Tianjin, mark the coal-hungry country's first major steps toward trapping carbon emissions.

    All gassed up.

    GreenGen will skim off CO2 before gasified coal is burned.


    BEIJING—In the coming weeks, on the plains of Inner Mongolia, China plans to launch its first large-scale effort to capture and store carbon emissions. A new coal-to-liquid plant in Erdos will burn coal to make, at the outset, a little over 1 million metric tons per year of diesel and other petrochemicals. Operated by China's biggest coal producer, Shenhua Group, the plant will generate as a byproduct about 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year. In an effort to make carbon capture pay, much of the gas will be sequestered in nearby oil reservoirs, where pressure from the CO2 will force hard-to-get oil to the surface.

    Shenhua's plant is one of two pivotal carbon capture and storage efforts in China. The other is GreenGen, an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant that the Chinese government approved last June for construction in Tianjin. Instead of pulverizing coal as a conventional power plant does, IGCC plants turn it into gas, which allows for easy separation of CO2 from combustible gases—and far easier CO2 capture. If successful, GreenGen could redefine how power is generated from coal in China, says Richard Morse of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “You could make a very strong case that it's the leading carbon-capture project for coal-fired power in the world,” he says.

    As China's economy booms, the need for carbon capture and storage is becoming increasingly urgent. Electricity consumption has shot up more than 50% in the past 5 years, and the country uses nearly 200 million more tons of oil per year than it did 10 years ago. For the next half-century or so, experts say, China will likely have to rely on coal to meet most of its energy needs. Carbon capture and storage technologies may require steep investments, but they are a must to stem environmental deterioration, says Simon Hayles, a bioenergy and carbon-capture project manager at the energy and environment consultancy AEA in Oxford, U.K.

    A perennial question in China as elsewhere is how to offset the costs of carbon capture. One approach is to make use of CO2 above ground. Last year, Huaneng Group, China's biggest electricity provider, and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation commissioned a coal-burning power plant in suburban Beijing capable of capturing 3000 tons of CO2 per year. The gas is sold to local softdrink manufacturers to put the fizz in carbonated beverages. Huaneng plans to scale up with its Shidongkou No. 2 Power Plant carbon capture project, a suite of carbon-capture facilities to be added to an existing coal plant in Shanghai. Expected to be operational by the end of 2009, the project will capture roughly 100,000 tons of CO2 per year and sell the gas to soda companies and other local industries.

    But such industries can put to use only a tiny fraction of CO2 emissions. That's why China is turning to enhanced oil recovery for carbon capture, says Deborah Seligsohn, principal adviser of the World Resources Institute's Beijing office. PetroChina has in the past used water and various polymers to recover oil in the country's northeast, she says. The Erdos plant shifts the emphasis to carbon sequestration. It will eliminate an intermediate gas-producing step used by other coal-to-liquid plants and use a relatively pure stream of CO2 for oil recovery.

    Experts are even more enthusiastic about Tianjin's GreenGen project. The plant will skim off CO2 from gasified coal before it is burned, a huge increase in efficiency compared with older plants that attempt to sop up CO2 from emissions after combustion. In the long run, IGCC could be an economic boon—and China has a head start on the competition, says Morse. “IGCC is likely to be the most viable path forward for carbon capture on coal plants in China,” he says.

    By 2011, GreenGen is expected to be running at a capacity of 250 megawatts of electricity, says Liu Yu, a GreenGen research engineer. An additional 450-megawatt facility able to capture more than 1 million tons of CO2 emissions per year will be completed by 2016, says Yu. The likeliest use of the CO2, experts say, is enhanced oil recovery.

    Fortunately, China has plenty of places to sock away CO2. According to a preliminary report by geologist Li Xiao Chun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics in Wuhan, China has some 46 natural gas and oil reservoirs, 68 coal beds, and 24 saline aquifers that could be used to sequester CO2. That equates to a CO2 storage capacity of some 3.2 trillion tons, Li says. If it's economically feasible to store carbon even in only 10% of these formations, he says, China could tuck away a century's worth of emissions before running out of space.

    Major sequestration efforts in China— such as funneling tens of millions of tons of CO2 into reservoirs or aquifers—are years away. But with key carbon capture and storage projects finally getting off the ground, China could soon be breathing at least a little bit easier.

    • * Josh Fenn is a writer in Beijing.