Random Samples

Science  23 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5977, pp. 409
  1. Playful Shapes

      CREDIT: EXPLORATORIUM

      Wildly distorting mirrors and twisting tunnels of stacked shapes are among the math-inspired attractions for children and adults at the Geometry Playground, a group of 20 exhibits opening 25 June at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Exhibit director Thomas Rockwell says the toys and structures combine “hands-on with body-in geometry” to “create a playground for the body and mind.” Until opening day, Rockwell says, he and Exploratorium science education researcher Joshua Gutwill are using the playground as a lab for studying how “navigation or climbing through structures involves spatial reasoning.”

    1. Ötzi Redux

        Old-model Iceman now in the Bolzano museum.

        CREDIT: SOUTH TYROL MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY/A. KAISER

        Ötziphiles have a great year to look forward to in 2011. That's when the museum of archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the 3500-year-old Iceman in an Alpine glacier.

        The exhibition, to open in March, will feature a brand-new reconstruction of the Iceman by the brothers Adrie and Alfons Kennis of Arnhem in the Netherlands. Alfons says many reconstructions of ancient humans look too pale and “fresh from the shower.” The Kennises, who will base the reconstruction on 3D scans of the head and body, envisage a brown-skinned, weather-beaten figure with some bruises and scratches, trudging through the snow. It being spring, he had probably shed some of his clothes, Alfons says, but his face probably had telltale black pits from frostbite. “We want to show a little bit of his body,” including tattoos on legs and back, adds Alfons. As it would be “too dramatic” to show an arrow in his back, they'll probably portray Ötzi as he might have been just before being hit by what probably killed him. “His facial expression will be tricky,” says Alfons; he should look worried but “not too frantic.” Ötzi's mouth will be partly open to show the big gap in his front teeth. “People who knew him probably knew him best from his teeth,” says Alfons.

      1. Precious Metal

          CREDIT: INSTITUTO NAZIONALE DI FISICA NUCLEARE

          In about 50 B.C.E., a Roman ship set sail from Spain and headed toward Italy carrying hundreds of lead bricks. More than 2000 years later, the approximately 30-meter-long vessel's cargo—a vital commodity that was used in everything from water ducts to sling bullets—is being incorporated into an experiment designed to investigate the fundamental constituents of nature.

          The ship sank off the coast of Sardinia and remained on the sea floor until an amateur scuba diver discovered it 20 years ago. By then, atoms of the radioactive isotope originally in the lead had decayed, leaving it almost entirely radioactively inert—and thus ideal for shielding ultrasensitive nuclear physics experiments from external sources of radiation.

          So when the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) heard of the hoard, it eagerly helped fund the excavation by the National Archaeological Museum in Cagliari in exchange for 150 of the 33-kilogram bricks. Last week, another 120 of the Roman ingots arrived at INFN's Gran Sasso high-energy physics laboratory in central Italy. They will be cleaned and melted down to line the CUORE experiment, which watches for an extremely rare nuclear event—neutrinoless double beta decay—in hopes of learning the mass of the neutrino and whether it is its own antiparticle. “For us, this lead really is treasure,” says Ettore Fiorini, nuclear physicist and CUORE spokesperson.

        1. Killer Diversity

            CREDIT: DAVE ELLIFRIT, NOAA ALASKA FISHERIES SCIENCE CENTER

            The world's killer whales (Orcinus orca) have long been regarded as a single species. But researchers say their new analysis of orca DNA suggests that three populations are genetically different enough to be individual species.

            Scientists suspected as much because killer whale populations vary greatly in diet (some are strict fish-eaters; others dine on only marine mammals), size, markings, and behavior. But previous analyses “showed very little genetic diversity” in orcas, says the current study's lead author, geneticist Phillip Morin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, California. Whereas those earlier analyses looked at only small portions of the whales' mitochondrial DNA, Morin's team surveyed the entire mitochondrial genome, in 139 samples of orcas from the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Southern Hemisphere oceans. Now up for species-hood: a dwarf form of fish-eating orca in the Ross Sea; a larger “pack-ice” orca that hunts seals in the Antarctic; and a marine mammal–hunting orca of a population known as North Pacific Transients.

            The new study, which appears this week in Genome Research, “is exciting and will certainly help settle the debate” about variation in killer whales, says Robin Baird, a cetacean expert with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia. Researchers also hope that it will lead to better conservation practices targeted at the needs of each species.

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