Random Samples

Science  18 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5985, pp. 1461
  1. Retro Leather

      CREDIT: UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK

      Want your shoes to last? Try leaving them in a dung heap.

      In 2007, a team of archaeologists was excavating a limestone cave in a mountainside overlooking a highway in southeastern Armenia. The cave's cool, dry conditions preserved many possessions of its former dwellers, who used it intermittently from about 5000 B.C.E. until the 14th century. While sifting through ancient sheep dung, an Armenian graduate student, Diana Zardaryan, pulled out a leather shoe, laces and all. Despite being remarkably intact, the shoe was carbondated to 3500 B.C.E., the team reported on 9 June in PLoS ONE. That makes it a few centuries older than the boots found on Ötzi the Iceman, discovered in 1991 in the Austrian-Italian Alps.

      “As far as we know, there's nothing older in terms of leather shoes,” says the paper's lead author, Ron Pinhasi, an archaeologist at University College Cork in Ireland. The shoe, a U.S. women's size 7 in modern terms, probably belonged to a woman, or possibly to a man with small feet, he says.

      The shoe will be the basis of comparison for future footwear discoveries in the region, says Steve Rosen, an archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. “Every such unique find is crucial.”

    1. Jargon or Gibberish?

        Understanding the titles of scientific papers can be as difficult as ___ (verb ending in -ing) a ____ (noun), which is what makes the online game arXiv vs. snarXiv (http://snarxiv.org/vs-arxiv) so frustratingly addictive. The game challenges players to tell the titles of genuine papers published on the preprint archive arxiv.org from ones generated by a computer program using a Mad Libs–based algorithm. David Simmons-Duffin, a physics Ph.D. student at Harvard University and the game's creator, says he was worried that scientists would take offense at seeing their names listed as authors of the nonsense papers. But researchers are now asking to be added to the game.

      1. Music to His Ears

          CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE JAMES VAN ALLEN COLLECTION

          To an untrained ear, astrophysicist James Van Allen's data tapes offered little more than tones and static. But to Van Allen (photo, center) and other space pioneers of the 1950s, they were music—melodies with cadenzas warning of potential hazards to human space travel. Now, preservation experts are working to keep those melodies from falling silent.

          Detectors on the first U.S. satellites, Explorer 1 and Explorer 3, transmitted the sounds to recorders back on Earth. The tones on the tapes indicated the intensity of cosmic rays, but the static was a mystery. The culprit, Van Allen discovered, was radiation belts—zones of high-energy protons and electrons that the satellites passed through in their orbits. That realization ultimately allowed NASA to map safe trajectories for astronauts heading into space.

          Van Allen's tapes include some 5000 reels that represent the first audio record of numerous American space missions. Recently, the basement on the University of Iowa campus where the tapes are stored began to show signs of mold, which could damage the tapes. So the university's library and physics department have joined forces to preserve the archive and digitize the tapes for posting on the Internet.

          “These are the only set of these tapes, the material traces of a global effort,” says Greg Prickman, a university archivist involved with the $60,000 project, funded by the state historical society, the university, and a private donor. Van Allen died in 2006, Prickman notes, but the data that inspired his greatest discovery will be preserved for generations to come.

        1. Conservation, Old School

            CREDIT: INEA (2)

            The forest lore of Italian monks is going online. As of this week, Italy's National Institute of Agricultural Economics (INEA) in Rome and the Benedictine monks of the Monastic Community of Camaldoli in Arezzo have digitized and uploaded approximately 42,000 pages, written between 1100 and 1965 C.E., of the Camaldolese forest code, which describes techniques the monks used to live sustainably in the forests of Tuscany's Apennine mountains (www.codiceforestale.it). Officials say the move heralds a new approach to Italian forestry.

            The monks' activity over the centuries has transformed the Apennine ecosystem, says the project's director, INEA forestry researcher Raoul Romano. The Camaldolese harvested the original beeches and planted silver firs, whose wood was more valuable. As the code describes, they also introduced plants that protected the woods from parasites, reared native seedlings in plots, regulated logging by locals, and purposefully left some areas untouched. Some of the monks' management techniques “can be found in contemporary forestry books,” Romano says, and sustained the forest as a resource for both the monastery and Apennine villagers for centuries.

            In contrast, these forests today are treated like open-air museums, Romano says. That has harmed rural communities, which tend to abandon the Apennines because of lack of jobs. Now, he says, INEA wants to develop a strategy that enables locals to live there sustainably—and scientists have a lot to learn from these dusty pages.