Random Samples

Science  27 Aug 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5995, pp. 999

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  1. One Short Stroll for Mankind


    Did you know that Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's first walk on the moon was as short as a lap around the Statue of Liberty (above)? Or that the plucky Mars rover Spirit has wandered about as far as from Wall Street to Central Park in New York City? You can come up with your own fascinating dinnertime facts using the new interactive Web site BBC Dimensions (http://howbigreally.com). The site lets you lay the sizes of famous sites and events—such as the pyramids of Giza or the Burning Man festival—on top of a Google Map of your part of the world; you can even see how many of your neighbors would be caught in a deep-sea trawling net passing down your block. The site also powerfully brings home the scale of environmental disasters, such as the recent gulf oil spill and the floods in Pakistan—the latter would cover nearly the entire state of California.

  2. Math Prizes Multiply


    The International Mathematical Union (IMU) doled out seven prizes on 19 August in opening ceremonies at its quadrennial International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in Hyderabad, India.

    Four mathematicians received the prestigious Fields Medal, considered mathematics' version of the Nobel Prize. Elon Lindenstrauss of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ngô B

    o Châu of Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, took the prize for analytic work with applications to number theory. Stanislav Smirnov of the Université de Genève in Switzerland and Cédric Villani of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris won for theoretical work in statistical physics.


    The Nevanlinna Prize, given for work in mathematical aspects of computer science, went to Daniel Spielman of Yale University for contributions in the areas of linear programming and error-correcting codes, which underlie much of what computers spend their time doing in business applications and telecommunications.

    The Gauss Prize, awarded for work in applied mathematics, went to Yves Meyer, professor emeritus at the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan in France. In the 1980s, Meyer was instrumental in developing the mathematical theory of wavelets, which revolutionized the classical theory of Fourier analysis.

    Louis Nirenberg of New York University was honored with the inaugural Chern Medal for his lifetime work in the modern theory of partial differential equations and for his mentoring of students and postdocs. The Chern Medal Award, named after the Chinese mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern, who died in 2004, comes in two parts: $250,000 to the recipient and another $250,000 to one or more mathematical organizations to be nominated by the recipient.

    Also at the meeting, IMU elected its first woman president, Ingrid Daubechies of Princeton University.

  3. Whisky in the Car?

    Some might quip that Scotland already runs on the stuff. Now a scientist at Edinburgh Napier University has patented a process to turn the byproducts of Scotch whisky production—Scotland's biggest industry—into butanol to fuel cars.

    Any Scottish single-malt whisky, be it a peaty Laphroaig or a light Isle of Jura, is distilled ethanol produced by yeast breaking down the glucose in barley. But what's left—residue known as “draff”—has “plenty more carbon inside,” says industrial microbiologist Martin Tangney, in the form of sugars such as xylose and arabinose.


    Scotland has ambitious targets for renewable energy use, says Tangney. But unlike Brazil, where ethanol makes up 50% of fuel used in vehicles, “we're not going to grow sugarcane.” Scotland's hundreds of distilleries, however, produce about 187 million kilograms of draff each year.

    So Tangney took solvent-producing Clostridia bacteria, once used to break down plant material into butanol and acetone, and harnessed them to squeeze butanol out of draff from a local distillery. For the part of the process that requires water, he turned to pot ale, the water left over when the weak ethanol is boiled in large copper stills to make the hard stuff. With the help of a £260,000 Scottish technology-transfer grant, he's proven the concept—and now he hopes to entice investors.


    To make sure the process was generic, Tangney traveled around the country collecting waste products from Scotland's myriad single malts. “We checked regional differences, … taste differences, the difference between a light versus a heavily peated whisky,” he says. As for any taste-testing that may have happened along the way, he says, “I never need an excuse.”