News this Week

Science  03 Sep 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5996, pp. 1132

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  1. Embryonic Stem Cells

    Controversial Ruling Throws U.S. Research Into a Tailspin

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser and
    2. Gretchen Vogel

    A U.S. judge's surprise decision last week to block government funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research has left scientists across the country confused, upset, and angry. Some, those on the intramural staff of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) near Washington, D.C., got orders this week to stop all hESC work immediately. At universities from California to Massachusetts, independent researchers funded by NIH were trying to understand what the ruling means for their own labs. On Monday, NIH issued a notice indicating that no more money will be released for hESC studies—all pending proposals and renewals are on hold—but investigators who received grant awards before 23 August can continue to spend the funds. That interpretation could, however, be open to challenge.

    Scrambling to save projects in mid-experiment, at least one lab chief shifted hESC work from U.S.-funded to privately backed facilities. Most can't afford that luxury. Another called together junior colleagues to let them know that their work would have to stop soon, barring a reprieve, and that some might have to be let go. Still others hoped that a legal appeal—filed by the U.S. Justice Department as Science went to press—would bring a stay of execution. In a blunt statement last week, NIH Director Francis Collins summed up the turmoil by saying, “This decision has just poured sand into that engine of discovery.”

    “If one step or ‘piece of research’ … results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding.”



    The crisis erupted on 23 August, when Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction requested by two researchers who claim that federal funding for hESC research is illegal. The injunction cites a ban on support for research in which human “embryos are destroyed,” adopted initially by the U.S. Congress in 1996 and known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The judge said the government must set aside NIH's 2009 Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research—the Obama Administration document that lays out NIH's rules for working with the cells—and halt the hESC funding it allowed (Science, 10 July 2009, p. 131).

    The Administration has asked the courts to lift the injunction until an appeal can be heard. Legal experts say that even if granted, relief could be temporary because a higher court could affirm Lamberth's ruling later. The judicial process could take months.

    Most observers agree that action by Congress will be needed to ensure federal funding of hESC research in the long run. Indeed, stem cell research champions hope to persuade Congress to override the Dickey-Wicker Amendment for research on hESCs soon after members return to Washington on 13 September. However, the prospects for action on such a hot-button issue in an election year are hard to predict.

    At the heart of Judge Lamberth's ruling is the question of whether the Dickey-Wicker rule prohibits federal funding for research on hESCs that have already been derived. Both the George W. Bush Administration and the Obama Administration agreed that the amendment bars federal funds for deriving hESCs because embryos are destroyed in the process. But Bush announced on 9 August 2001 that work on cell lines derived before that date would be permitted, and Obama's executive order, issued on 9 March 2009, extended the permission to many other hESCs (Science, 13 March 2009, p. 1412). Judge Lamberth ruled, however, that the distinction between deriving hESCs and using them is invalid: “If one step or ‘piece of research’ … results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding.”

    Experts do not agree on the strength of Lamberth's legal arguments. Some say the challenge was to be expected. Louis Guenin, a lecturer in ethics in science at Harvard Medical School in Boston who has written extensively on the ethics of embryo research and hESCs, supports federal funding for hESCs but believes the judge is correct that funding for hESC work is incompatible with current law. Guenin warned shortly after Obama's election that an executive order like the one Obama issued would be vulnerable to legal challenge. If Congress wants to avoid future problems, Guenin and others say, it must remove the prohibition against embryo research or pass a law that says the government can fund hESC work.

    But others think the ruling was a bad decision. Professor Hank Greely of Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, California, argues that Dickey-Wicker is unclear on whether it allows for research on hESC lines. And in cases in which a law is ambiguous, the courts must defer to the interpretation of the executive branch, he says. Three successive presidential administrations have found that Dickey-Wicker allows for hESC research, Greely points out. “We've got 11 years of consistent interpretation by the federal government. That's pretty powerful,” he says.

    Robert Charrow, a former Health and Human Services Department attorney now at the Greenberg Traurig firm in Washington, D.C., says the case should never have gone this far. He thinks the courts “erred” in recognizing that the plaintiffs—James Sherley and Theresa Deisher—had standing to sue the government. These two researchers work with adult stem cells but avoid hESCs for moral reasons. In their suit they claimed that as competitors for NIH grants, they would be injured by policies that allowed others to win funding for hESC studies, a type of research they consider illegal. That claim of harm gained them access to court and yielded an injunction.

    In the confusion surrounding the legal issues, one thing seems clear: For researchers working with the cells, the world has changed. That wasn't immediately apparent from Lamberth's ruling, which said that halting federal support “would not seriously harm ESC researchers because the injunction would simply preserve the status quo.” Stem cell researchers beg to differ.


    September grant renewals and review of new grants for hESC studies are on hold; more grants could be at risk next year. UCLA's Amander Clark could lose her funding in February.


    Raising funds to replace frozen NIH grants is no easy prospect, says Margaret Goodell, a stem cell scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Goodell says she received her annual grant renewal notice a few days before the injunction was issued, so she is assuming for now that she can continue work. But had the notice been delayed by a few days, she says, she might have had to lay off as many as 20 people in her lab who are supported by the grant.

    For Amander Clark, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, the situation is more acute. Her $1.9 million grant application has been tabled—meaning it's out of competition indefinitely—and a 5-year $1.7 million grant funded under the Bush Administration rules, due for renewal in January, is at risk. “As a new PI [principal investigator] just getting my lab off the ground, I am devastated. I am worried about my tenure, I am worried about my graduate students, and I am worried about my postdocs.” The situation has hit young investigators particularly hard, she says: “We do not have the track record yet to easily or quickly secure funds from nonfederal sources.”

    “This decision has just poured sand into that engine of discovery.”



    Research results soon become stale. Clark says she may write papers quickly so the preliminary data aren't lost, even though the grant is only 1.5 years old. For now, Clark says, the grant under review is in limbo. Although only one-third of the project involves hESCs, NIH has told her that she can't revise it to remove the hESC component. Submitting a new grant from scratch would take at least a year from review to receiving funding, she says.

    C. Anthony Blau, a hematologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, says the ruling has made him rethink two grant applications he is about to turn in. Both were supposed to involve hESCs, but he is now revising his plans. “It's a very promising approach that is just going to be blocked at this point,” he says.

    Stay of execution?

    Evidence on promising treatments delayed and the disruption of research plays a role in the government's request for a stay of the preliminary injunction. Federal lawyers argue that the potential harm to the careers of Sherley and Deisher is outweighed by the harm to taxpayers whose research in vestments are being wasted and to patients who are potentially being deprived of new treatments.

    “I think there's a very good chance that this [injunction] will be stayed” while the appeals court reviews Lamberth's ruling, Greely says. If so, he adds, the case could be heard by early 2011 and a decision issued by spring. But if the appeals court upholds the injunction, he expects the government to request an expedited appeal, which could take less time.

    Meanwhile, stem cell research supporters are hoping Congress will take quick action to reverse the research ban when members return from recess in mid-September. Representative Diana DeGette (D–CO) plans to push for passage of a bill she co-sponsored with Michael Castle (R–DE) that would codify Obama's executive order. A similar bill passed Congress twice but was vetoed by Bush.

    The bill in previous forms would not end the Dickey-Wicker problem. That is likely to persist unless Congress votes to eliminate the amendment or modify it to allow for hESC research. “We will find a way to fix this,” a House Democratic aide says. On the Senate side, Tom Harkin (D–IA) announced that, as chair of the appropriations subcommittee that approves NIH's budget, he will hold a hearing on 16 September to look at ways to modify the Dickey-Wicker rider.

    Although some observers expected that lawmakers would steer clear of the divisive stem cell issue before the November midterm elections, they may not be able to avoid it. Even so, with House of Representatives and Senate Democratic leadership so far silent on the issue, it's unclear how far their efforts will get in the 3 weeks before Congress breaks again. The turmoil in Washington over Lamberth's ruling could leave stem cell researchers in limbo for many more months.

  2. Climate Change

    Panel Faults IPCC Leadership But Praises Its Conclusions

    1. Eli Kintisch

    The world's most authoritative climate science body has performed well enough so far, says a new independent review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the report, from a panel convened by a coalition of national science academies, says the increased public scrutiny IPCC is facing and the growing importance of its work means that it must do better than that.

    “Overall, IPCC's assessment process has been a success and served society well,” says Harold Shapiro, president emeritus of Princeton University and head of the review carried out by the Inter-Academy Council (IAC). But “it's not as agile and responsive as it needs to be,” the report says.

    Repair man.

    Shapiro says critics have put “dents” in IPCC's reputation.


    The review comes at a trying time for IPCC. It has produced four major assessment reports on the world's changing climate since it was established by the United Nations in 1988, each involving thousands of scientists and running for thousands of pages. And it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. But the disclosure late last year of e-mails from climate scientists being dismissive of critics' arguments and requests for data, and the discovery of errors in its 2007 report related to Himalayan glaciers (Science, 13 November 2009, p. 924) and sea-level rise, have put “dents” in its reputation, says Shapiro. The group's response has exacerbated the problem, say a number of IPCC's scientific supporters. “After 20 years, there's room for improvement,” says economist Richard Richels, a longtime IPCC contributor.

    Reports by the U.S. National Academies and scores of individual papers in recent months have confirmed the bottom line of the IPCC assessments: The world is warming due to release of greenhouse gases from human activities, and the emerging consequences are severe. But the 113-page report, requested by IPCC and the United Nations, identified plenty of areas needing work. It called for a stronger leadership structure, including adding the positions of executive director and an executive board, and term limits for top panel officials. It also recommends tighter review procedures, along with a clear conflict-of-interest policy, greater attention to viewpoints outside the scientific mainstream, and improved handling of outsider comments.

    The report notes that IPCC lacks procedures to deal with any errors, and it asserts that its current structure is poorly designed to deal with the public consequences of those mistakes. In the case of the infamous error on the Himalayan glaciers—the IPCC report said that the mountains would be ice-free by 2035—IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri said a report contrary to that assertion was “voodoo science.” Months later, however, IPCC reversed itself and issued a statement of regret. That “very poor” response was one example of why IPCC needs stronger leadership, Shapiro told Science.

    A growing burden.

    Each successive assessment has needed more reviewers and authors to monitor more research findings.


    In 2007, Pachauri created an executive team comprised of top officials and scientists from each of IPCC's three working groups to make its leadership more cohesive. Shapiro called the change “a good idea that failed.” The report said a formalized executive board and executive director, reporting to the chair, would be better suited to respond to day-to-day issues. Although the report called for a 6-year term limit for the chair and other top positions, Pachauri, in his ninth year on the job, showed no signs of willingness to hand over the reins today. (Shapiro said his group was not asked to provide advice on whether Pachauri should remain.)

    The report said that increasingly varied and complex studies of climate science have taxed the limited resources of the IPCC staff and hundreds of volunteer reviewers. To help ease the onslaught, the report suggested that existing review editors—who oversee each chapter's multistep review process—rank the importance of the comments they do receive and that they urge chapter authors to respond to public comments.

    IPCC critic and respected climate skeptic John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, called that a “welcome” recommendation. Several comments had pointed out the 2035 error to no avail, for example, although Shapiro said he didn't know if more forceful oversight would have prevented authors from ignoring them.

    The IAC report scolds IPCC's Working Group 2, which deals with the effects of climate change, for being imprecise. The report criticized the working group's “high confidence” in the assertion that adapting to sea-level rise “could amount to 5%–10%” of gross domestic product despite the fact that it was based on only “a small number of unpublished studies.” It calls for a more rigorous emphasis on explaining uncertainty.

    In a press conference, Pachauri said repeatedly that he was open to nearly every suggestion but that IPCC would “have to discuss” many of them before implementing any new policies. Any fundamental changes to the panel's leadership structure would need to be adopted by IPCC's sponsoring governments at their yearly meeting in October in Busan, South Korea.

    Shapiro hopes that the chair and his colleagues will respond. He says it's important to the world that the “thousands of scientists working somehow together to deliver important information on the state of the climate … succeed.”

  3. Antarctica

    In Ground-Based Astronomy's Final Frontier, China Aims for New Heights

    1. Richard Stone

    XI'AN, CHINA—No place on Earth rivals the Antarctic Plateau for stargazing. The air is thin and bone-dry; dust is minimal. As observatories go, the higher the better—and at 4093 meters above sea level, it doesn't get any higher on the East Antarctic icecap than Dome A. Last year, Chinese researchers opened Kunlun Station near Dome A. Now they intend to find out if a superior vantage point translates into superior astronomy. At a workshop here last month, astronomers unveiled plans to build two major telescopes at Dome A during the Chinese government's next 5-year plan, to start in 2011.

    The 2.5-meter Kunlun Dark Universe Telescope, or KDUST, would survey the optical and near-infrared bands for planets beyond our solar system and plumb the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. However, “one instrument would be lonely,” says astronomer Yang Ji, director of Nanjing's Purple Mountain Observatory, which is developing a companion: a 5-meter terahertz (THz) telescope to observe 200- to 350-micrometer wavelengths. This “underexplored frequency window” is acutely sensitive to gas clouds— ideal for probing, for example, star and planet formation, says Qizhou Zhang, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the group that initiated the THz telescope project. Outside experts are impressed. “It's a very ambitious and exciting program,” says John Storey, an astronomer at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia.

    Steady gaze.

    KDUST would sit above Dome A's thin layer of turbulent air.


    The Chinese Academy of Sciences has requested 1 billion yuan ($150 million) for the telescopes and support platform—one of several science megafacilities that the country's powerful National Development and Reform Commission is weighing for the 12th 5-year plan. A decision is expected around year's end.

    The two telescopes would be a major expansion of China's formidable Antarctic buildup. During the 2007–08 International Polar Year, China erected Kunlun Station, teamed with the United States and others to study the Gamburtsev Mountains—the origin of the East Antarctic ice sheet—and with Australia began testing observing conditions at Dome A. To pave the way for expansion, China last year built an ice runway at Kunlun; until now, all materials and people have been brought in by arduous traverses.

    China is not making a leap into the unknown. Antarctic astronomy first made headlines in 1998, when BOOMERANG, a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)–sponsored balloon experiment, mapped the cosmic microwave background and found that the universe is flat. As an encore, a 10-meter telescope at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station brought online in 2007 has begun microwave background studies. “South Pole shows it is possible to build major astronomical facilities in Antarctica,” says Storey.

    Plenty more is in the works. The coming austral summer at the South Pole should see completion of IceCube, the biggest neutrino observatory in the world. Then next year, the NSF-funded South Pole Ultraviolet Pathfinder will lay the groundwork for mapping the cosmic web, the universe's scaffolding of dark matter. Also next year, U.S.-led teams plan to field two experiments—the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory balloon to be launched from McMurdo Station, and the High Elevation Antarctic Terahertz telescope, a 0.5-meter instrument to be installed at Ridge A in East Antarctica. And a six-nation consortium has proposed a 2.5-meter optical-infrared telescope for Dome C, where the French-Italian Concordia station has conducted extensive site testing.

    The numerous efforts underscore the fabulous observing conditions on the plateau. Frigid temperatures make for a low infrared background, and aerosol concentrations are 1/50 of those at temperate sites. Water vapor is a bane for submillimeter and THz observations. Compared with one of the best sites in temperate latitudes—Mauna Kea in Hawaii—“Dome A is a factor of 10 drier,” says Storey. “That's a staggering advantage.”

    Indeed, the view from Dome A may be unbeatable. “This is a totally different ballgame from other astronomical sites,” says UNSW's Michael Ashley. In January 2008, Chinese astronomers deployed PLATO, a suite of site-characterization instruments, at Dome A. It confirmed not only that Dome A surpasses other plateau outposts, says Ashley, but also that “sometimes the view rivals Hubble.” And the boundary layer of turbulent air at Dome A is only about 14 meters thick, compared with 200 meters at the South Pole, making it far cheaper to perch telescopes above Dome A.

    Chinese astronomers won't have to wait for a decision on the megaproject proposal to start ramping up at Dome A. Funding is set for installation next year of the Antarctic Schmidt Telescopes, a trio of 50-centimeter telescopes that should detect at least one Earth-sized extrasolar planet per year and supernova explosions within half an hour after they become visible, says Lifan Wang, an astronomer at Texas A&M University in College Station and director of the Chinese Center for Antarctic Astronomy. “This will help us study explosion mechanisms,” he says.

    Meanwhile, plans are in full swing for KDUST, designed by the Nanjing Institute of Astronomical Optics and Technology, and the 5-meter THz telescope. The latter has a hard act to follow: Europe's year-old Herschel Space Observatory, which “has opened up a new field for terahertz astronomy,” Zhang says. But Herschel has a 3-year design life, and “it's very difficult to get time on it,” he says. “The 5-meter at Dome A will continue discovery that Herschel started.” It's also a steppingstone to a 15-meter THz telescope China hopes to build in Antarctica after 2015. Likewise, KDUST is a prelude to a 6- to 8-meter optical and near-infrared telescope. Long before those huge telescopes become reality, however, Chinese researchers will have put Dome A on the astronomy map.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    The World's Smallest Refrigerator You may have a $10,000 Sub-Zero fridge in your kitchen, but this is cooler. Theoretical physicists have dreamed up a scheme to make a refrigerator out of a pair of quantum particles such as ions or atoms.

    Noah Linden, Sandu Popescu, and Paul Skrzypczyk of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom will report in Physical Review Letters that, at least in principle, they can use two quantum particles called “qubits” to cool a third. The trick is to put two of the qubits—including the one to be cooled—in contact with a cold bath and the third one in contact with a hot bath. Arrange things just right and the qubits spontaneously “flip” between their excited and non-excited quantum states in a way that siphons energy out of the target qubit and cools it toward absolute zero.

    No word yet on when physicists might unveil the smallest possible beer.


    'Hunting for Conservation' Backfires African lions are one step away from becoming an endangered species, and a measure designed to preserve them is to blame.

    Lion populations have plummeted more than 90% over the last 70 years. In the 1980s and '90s, African nations proposed an unusual solution: trophy hunting. They hoped that by allowing rich game-chasers to shoot a few animals, landowners would have an incentive to conserve lion habitats and keep the species alive while boosting their local economies.

    The strategy has backfired, according to an upcoming study in Conservation Biology. Led by Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, a team of biologists analyzed the amount of game brought back by hunters from 21-day safaris, the only legal way to hunt lions in Tanzania. They discovered that from 1996 to 2008, the number of lions hunters bagged in the East African nation decreased by half. Expanding agriculture, disease, and retaliatory killings might all play a role in the decline, the team concludes, but those threats paled in comparison to recreational hunting.

    Although Packer acknowledges that the idea of hunting for conservation may work in theory, “there's no point in providing the animal with economic value and then over-hunting them.”


    The First Feast? Whether it's Thanksgiving dinner or Mother's Day brunch, people around the world gather to pig out on special occasions. A new study finds that such feasts have been going on for at least 12,000 years.

    Two years ago, archaeologists Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Leore Grosman of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and colleagues found the body of an approximately 45-year-old woman at Hilazon Tachtit, a cave west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, which was occupied by hunter-gatherers during the transition between the prefarming Paleolithic and the agricultural Neolithic periods. Her skeleton was surrounded by animal remains, including the shells of 71 tortoises and the bones of at least three wild cattle.


    In the new study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team finds that the wild cattle bones show clear signs of butchering and that the tortoise shells were broken in such a way as to make the meat easily accessible. The meat could have fed 35 or more people.

    This is the “best documented case” of early feasting to date, says Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. He says that feasting was key to the social transition between hunter-gatherer and farming societies.


    A Pea-Sized Frog The smallest frog on three continents has a loud voice, and that's the only way scientists were able to find it. Starting at dusk, the males emit a chorus of harsh, raspy calls. Researchers report in Zootaxa that they discovered the pea-sized amphibians on the side of the Gunung Serapi mountain in Borneo, chirping amid the tiny Nepenthes pitcher plants they call home. Named Microhyla nepenthicola, the male frogs measure only 10.6 to 12.8 mm long, making them the tiniest frogs in Europe, Asia, and Africa. (The females are almost twice as long.) The amphibians' high surface-to-volume ratio means that they lose water quickly, so they do most of their mating and eating near the moist pitcher plants. They're not the world's smallest frog, however: That record is currently held by two 9.8-mm-long amphibians in the New World, the gold frog in Brazil, and the Monte Iberia dwarf frog in Cuba.

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  5. Energy Innovation

    Novel Grant Promises Greener Buildings, Regional Growth

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Civilian and military personnel working at the sprawling Philadelphia Navy Yard along the city's waterfront on the Delaware River went to Building 661 for exercise. But in 1995, the pool, basketball court, and fitness center inside the building were shuttered when the U.S. government closed the entire 500-hectare compound that since 1871 had helped the country go to war. Now the building itself is due for a workout.

    Last week, a consortium led by Pennsylvania State University won a federal competition for $129 million over 5 years to spur efforts to develop technologies for making buildings more energy efficient. Building 661 will be retrofitted and reopened to help the country wage war against two 21st century opponents: global warming and energy profligacy. It's the centerpiece of an effort to transform the entire Navy Yard complex into a test bed for reducing the carbon footprint of a sector that accounts for roughly 40% of U.S. energy consumption. The grant also represents a novel approach by the U.S. government in funding energy research and development.

    The Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster (GPIC) for Energy Efficient Buildings is the third Energy Innovation Hub that the Department of Energy (DOE) has funded this year. Last year, Energy Secretary Steven Chu proposed eight “Bell Lablets” that would bring large teams of scientists and engineers together to tackle complex and important energy problems. Congress gave him money for three hubs: One, for turning sunlight into fuels, is based at the University of California, Berkeley; the second, to develop the next generation of commercial nuclear reactors, is housed at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.


    A former exercise center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard will be retrofitted as part of a new energy hub.


    But GPIC, as its name implies, is more than a hub. It's also the first federally funded regional innovation cluster. A RIC is meant to raise the overall innovation IQ of a geographical area, and an E-RIC is supposed to do that by concentrating on clean energy technologies. Although DOE is the driver for the Philadelphia project—putting up $122 million of the total for the core research and technology activities—the Small Business Administration and three programs within the Department of Commerce are also chipping in money to promote economic redevelopment, strengthen manufacturing, and provide job training throughout the region. As Chu said in February when he announced the E-RIC competition, “energy efficient buildings represent one of our best and most immediate opportunities to create jobs, save money, and cut carbon pollution.”

    As early as this fall, scientists and engineers will begin swarming over the same ground once trod by steamfitters and ensigns. The idea of using an existing brownfield site is one of GPIC's more attractive features, says Henry Foley, Penn State's vice president for research and dean of its Graduate School, who's heading the new cluster.

    “It's a city within a city,” says Foley, a professor of chemical engineering with extensive industrial and academic experience, about the Navy Yard. “It has its own energy grid. We have more than 200 buildings to play with, of all sizes and shapes, and there's already a plan to rejuvenate it. We think it's a perfect place to begin.”

    The state is kicking in $30 million to help retrofit Building 661 and construct an adjacent integrated building sciences lab that together will serve as home for the hub. Each partner in the cluster—a far-flung alliance of 90 organizations that includes Purdue, Virginia Tech, Michigan, and Carnegie Mellon universities; IBM and United Technologies Corp.; and two DOE labs, Lawrence Livermore and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory—will send scientists and engineers to work at the site, Foley explains.

    Foley's job is to keep them marching toward the same, clear goal. “Look at all the progress we've made in other industries in design, building, and manufacturing processes,” he begins. “Take automobiles. They've come up with new materials, better combustion engines, improved efficiency, reduced emissions. There's nothing comparable to that in the building industry.”

    The building sector needs to develop similar designs for superlow emissions and superhigh efficiencies, he argues. “Our first task is to do the science and engineering that's needed for innovations in how new buildings are constructed and how existing buildings can be rehabbed to meet higher standards,” he says. “Then we'll try to put them into general use. … Retrofitting an existing structure and integrating it into the larger grid is a challenge that America faces. So we think it should be our challenge, too.”

    Foley says previous attempts ignored key components of what it takes to be green. “In the 1970s, we made buildings more energy efficient, but they were not always habitable because the materials that they used were harmful to people and to the environment,” he says. “And in today's tough economic climate, no one would risk using something that hasn't been proven effective.”

    Although those who lost out to Penn State wish the decision had gone their way, they seem pleased that DOE is supporting interdisciplinary collaborations in building efficiency. “This is a field that has been chronically underfunded in the United States,” says Leon Glicksman, a professor of building technology and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, the lead institution on a proposal from New England that would have converted an empty warehouse on campus into a testing and learning center. “It was amazing to see how many people at MIT from different fields were interested in the idea.”

  6. Newsmaker Interview: Frank Gannon

    Ireland's Departing Research Chief on Irish and European Science

    1. John Travis

    In his early 60s and back in his native country after a decade-plus stint in Germany running the European Molecular Biology Organization, Frank Gannon probably could have finished out his career comfortably as director of the national funding agency Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), a position he's held since 2007. But after celebrating SFI's 10th anniversary in October, the biologist will resign his position at the end of the year and head off to Australia to become director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) in Brisbane.

    QIMR already has some 700 scientists working in about 60 research groups and is expanding thanks to state investment. Gannon's move will allow a return to the lab to conduct research on steroid hormone receptors and DNA methylation, something he gave up to direct SFI. “That's something that is a really attractive aspect of the [QIMR] job. I found I hadn't stopped wondering about some of the questions I was working on.”

    Gannon has been an active player in European science policy. He lobbied strongly, for example, for the creation of the European Research Council (ERC), which funds individual scientists in Europe. He says that ERC is off to a great start but notes that more than 95% of its grants go to just 15 of the European Union's 27 members. Perhaps, Gannon argues, ERC should create a new grant program “to build up strengths in places that are not fully competitive at the moment.”

    Q: There may be a perception that you are leaving SFI before Ireland is forced to make even more drastic cuts to its funding. Can you reassure SFI's scientists?

    F.G.: This year has been a year of absolute economic stringency to make sure we could get the most out of the funds that were provided. There were cuts in our budget. Ireland is in a state where that was inevitable, unsurprising. … Will there be another cut next year, and is this the end of the strategy [to grow the economy through research and development]? The government has said in meetings and in the media here that the SFI budget will be increased next year, 2011. Then it will be back on track for some years to come. … There is a realization at the highest policy level that Ireland has to have a smart, or knowledge-based, economy. There is a recommitment to increased funding for research, development, and innovation.

    Q: In terms of European science, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the region?

    F.G.: By nature, I'm optimistic. I think the Irish story is being rerun at the European level. There was a time in many European countries where the research world felt it was sufficiently special that it didn't need to do anything other than good research. The new emphasis in Europe and on the national level is that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. Getting linkages between the knowledge and the economy is something that is exercising many people's minds.

    Q: Has the European Research Council lived up to your expectations?

    F.G.: I think it has not only lived up to expectation but is now seen as a core component [of European science]. … The researchers that are being identified are setting standards for everyone else. [An ERC grant] has quickly become a symbol of excellence. The E.U. wasn't always associated with being a symbol of excellence. It was a symbol of effectiveness but not excellence.

  7. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    The editor of the journal Cognition says he believes that fabrication is the most plausible explanation for data in a 2002 paper by Harvard University's Marc Hauser involving cotton-top tamarins. The paper, which is being retracted, adds to growing doubts about the validity of Hauser's work on the cognitive gap between humans and monkeys.

    Continuing an apparent campaign to wipe out political dissent on campus, the Iranian Ministry of Science has removed the founder-director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan and the chancellor of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and replaced them with scientists who are strong supporters of President Ahmadinijad.

    The European particle physics laboratory, CERN, has announced a 6% cut in spending over the next 5 years that puts some projects on a longer time frame. It keeps open the world's largest atom smasher—the 27-kilometer-long, subterranean Large Hadron Collider—and avoids layoffs.

    China's self-appointed science fraud buster was assaulted outside his Beijing apartment this week. Police are investigating the attack by two men on Fang Shimin, better known by his pen name Fang Zhouzi.

    A new report from the Obama Administration on how last year's $787 billion stimulus package is helping to transform the U.S. economy by fostering more innovation puts a premium on applied renewable energy and genomics research.

    A New York City public interest group has challenged eight patents on the widely used HIV/AIDS drug ritonavir, a protease inhibitor. It wants the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to hold a formal reexamination of a string of awards made between 1996 and 2008 to Abbott Laboratories.

    For more science policy news, visit

  8. Mammoth-Killer Impact Flunks Out

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    After a new study failed to find nanodiamonds, impact experts are flatly rejecting outsiders' claims that an impact 12,900 years ago devastated the megafauna.


    Did a continent-searing comet impact wipe out the mammoths and other great beasts? Impact specialists have now weighed in on that widely publicized possibility. Their verdict: There never was a mammoth-killer impact. Proponents' evidence “is not internally consistent, not reproducible, and certainly not consistent with being produced by impact,” says geochemist Christian Köberl of the University of Vienna, who has been publishing on impacts for 27 years.

    Since impact specialists went looking on their own, Köberl says, “nobody has found anything.” The final blow, in the eyes of some, comes this week in a paper reporting a failure to find proponents' most promising trace of an impact, a particular crystal form of nano-size diamond.

    Core supporters of the impact scenario are sticking to their guns. “It's an hypothesis,” says paleoceanographer James Kennett, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a prominent member of the loose confederation of assorted impact proponents. “If anything clearly shows it to be wrong, I'll abandon it,” Kennett says—but not yet.

    Evolutionary origins

    The mammoth-killer impact hypothesis got its start in the late 1980s, says retired geophysical consultant Allen West of Prescott, Arizona, who became a prominent impact proponent. That's when William Topping, a retired archaeologist in New Mexico, went looking in sediments for evidence of a cosmic episode in Earth's history. He found unusual mineral grains—tiny magnetic spherules—at a pivotal point in the geologic and archaeological records: 12,900 years ago, about when the 1000-year-long cold snap called the Younger Dryas began, megafauna such as the mammoth disappeared, and the distinctive arrowheads and spear points crafted by the Paleo-Indian Clovis people vanished from the record.

    By 2001, the Younger Dryas mineral grains had spawned the “nuclear catastrophe” hypothesis. Topping and nuclear chemist Richard Firestone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California proposed that an earlier “nearby supernova or cosmic ray jet” had triggered “a sequence of events that may have included solar flares, impacts, and secondary cosmic ray bombardments” that did in the Clovis culture as well as the mammoths. Topping's magnetic “spherules,” they proposed, had formed in the heat and pressure of the cataclysm.

    By 2007, however, the supernova and its great irradiation had been put aside and a single North American impact had become the focus. And the cast of characters had grown. At the May meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) (Science, 1 June 2007, p. 1264), a loose consortium of more than 25 people including Firestone, West, Kennett, and Topping presented a half-dozen chemical and mineralogical traces of an impact that were recovered from sediments laid down at the onset of the Younger Dryas—that is, at the Younger Dryas boundary (YDB). In their new scenario, a comet blew up in the atmosphere over North America or blasted into the lingering Laurentide Ice Sheet in Canada. They also presented soot, charcoal, and other carbonaceous debris from the YDB as evidence of continent-engulfing wildfires touched off by the impact.

    Then, in an October 2007 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 26 authors led by Firestone, West, and Kennett—a member of the National Academy of Sciences—made their case in the peer-reviewed literature. Only one of the 26 had previously worked on impact markers, and her specialty—molecular cages of carbon atoms containing trapped helium—remains unconfirmed as an impact marker (Science, 7 March 2008, p. 1331).

    No impact, thank you

    Now, 3 years later, of the 12 lines of evidence presented for an impact, “nanodiamonds are the last man standing. Everything else has failed to be corroborated,” says geologist Nicholas Pinter of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, who with colleagues has looked for YDB markers.

    Supposed chemical evidence has withered under scrutiny, says impact geochemist Philippe Claeys of the Free University of Brussels. Claeys and colleagues probed YDB samples—both his own from Europe, and others from West—for claimed traces of an impacter. The targets included iridium, the exotic element that first put researchers on the trail of the dinosaur-killer impact. In a December 2009 PNAS paper, Claeys and colleagues reported their results: nil. “The geochemical story is finished; it's over,” Claeys says. “There is nothing, no meteoritic signal. No one I know of has come to their defense.”

    Diamond or dross?

    Transmission electron microscopy suggests to some there's no impact diamond.


    Microscopic magnetic spherules—Topping's original find, later supported by Firestone and colleagues—haven't panned out either, say other researchers who have looked for them. Archaeologist Todd Surovell of the University of Wyoming in Laramie and colleagues found the minerals at four of seven YDB sites they searched, but the spherules occurred sporadically before, at, and after the YDB. Surovell and his team also looked for irregular magnetic mineral grains, reportedly one of the most reliable markers of the impact, but found “zero major peaks [of grains] associated with the onset of the Younger Dryas,” says Surovell, who reported the result in PNAS in October 2009.

    Lingering charred traces of impact-triggered wildfires are also in short supply, say researchers not proposing an impact. “I've done dozens of [YDB] sites, and charcoal is rare outside of Clovis cooking sites. It isn't there,” says archaeologist C. Vance Haynes, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Paleobotanist and fire scientist Andrew Scott of Royal Holloway, University of London, in Egham, U.K., goes further. “None of these people has spent their lives looking at carbon material in sediments,” he says. “I've spent 35 years looking at it. I see no evidence of an exceptional fire event across North America.”

    The last nail?

    None of those types of evidence is considered conclusive, however, specialists point out. Of the markers impact proponents have proposed, just one mineral bears the indelible signs of the crushing shock that in nature only an impact can create: high-pressure hexagonal diamond, or lonsdaleite. Using transmission electron microscopy (TEM), Douglas Kennett of the University of Oregon, Eugene (the son of James Kennett), James Kennett, West, and 14 colleagues reported the detection of such hexagonal nanodiamond at the YDB in a 20 July 2009 PNAS paper.

    Two other groups have now looked for lonsdaleite at the YDB and found none. At the December 2009 AGU meeting, Claeys, microscopist Dominique Schryvers of the University of Antwerp in Belgium, and colleagues reported they could find no hexagonal diamond at a YDB in Belgium, only cubic diamond unrelated to an impact. And in a PNAS paper this week, physicist Tyrone Daulton of Washington University in St. Louis, Pinter, and Scott report searching samples from three YDB sites in the United States. Douglas Kennett and his co-authors had reported nanodiamonds at two of these sites, including hexagonal diamonds at one.

    Site of controversy.

    Proponents say traces of impact mark this 12,900-year-old dark layer.


    On the basis of TEM analysis, “I'm convinced there's no [hexagonal] diamond present,” says Daulton. TEM patterns of some material “matched closely what Kennett reported. I knew immediately this wasn't diamond.” Instead, the material was aggregates of sheetlike forms of carbon, including graphene. “If you don't look too closely at it, you could convince yourself it is [lonsdaleite]. Theirs was a gross misidentification as lonsdaleite.”

    Daulton's judgment is reliable, other microscopists say. “He's a real TEM person,” says meteoriticist and microscopist Laurence Garvie of Arizona State University, Tempe. “All the other [YDB] nanodiamond stuff has been written by people who aren't TEM people. If he says there are no nanodiamonds, there are no nanodiamonds.”

    Proponents of a Younger Dryas impact disagree. “The Daulton et al. claim that we have misidentified diamonds is false and misleading,” writes Douglas Kennett in an e-mail. His complaints about Daulton et al. focus on sampling, sample processing, and interpretation. Impact proponents level similar criticisms at other outside studies of traces of impact and fire. Kennett sees little evidence that Daulton and his colleagues actually sampled the YDB, an often thin and sometimes hard-to-recognize layer. He also says that they probably analyzed too few carbonaceous particles—in which nanodiamonds reside—to find any diamond and that their sample processing may have destroyed diamond that was there. What's more, Kennett says, the TEM-determined crystalline structures of hexagonal diamond and graphene are so easily distinguished that misidentification is unlikely. “There's been a real problem of data quality,” Kennett sums up.

    This debate will likely go on for years. Impact specialist Köberl, for one, thinks it has already lasted too long. If impact proponents “had involved the mainstream community and listened to them, probably none of these papers would have been published,” he says. Meanwhile, many researchers drawn from more mundane work to hunt for a killer impact are calling it quits. “I spent 16 months in the lab and found very little evidence to support their hypothesis,” says Surovell. “I have other things to worry about.”

  9. Profile: François Nosten

    The Dour Frenchman on Malaria's Frontier

    1. Martin Enserink

    When he arrived at the dangerous Thai-Burmese border in 1984, François Nosten barely knew what research was. Today, he's one of the world's top malaria scientists.

    A doctor first.

    François Nosten treating a sick child at the Mae La refugee camp.


    MAE SOT, THAILAND—You'd think that a malaria scientist in François Nosten's position would need lots of charm and excellent diplomatic skills. He's a foreigner working in Thailand, a country where smiling seems a prerequisite for getting anything done. His work straddles the politically sensitive and occasionally violent border with Myanmar, formerly Burma, and he manages a health care system primarily for illegal immigrants from that country—people the Thai government largely ignores.

    But as it happens, Nosten, 53, doesn't exude much charm, he rarely smiles, and one colleague calls him “famously undiplomatic.” When Science came to visit him in this border town, a 7-hour drive from Bangkok, Nosten's long face bore a scowl. “I'm often grumpy,” he confessed.

    Yet despite his frequent sourness, Nosten has built an unmatched international resume in malaria. The Shoklo Malaria Research Unit (SMRU), which he founded 25 years ago, not only provides basic health services to tens of thousands of poor people, but it's also one of the most respected and prolific clinical malaria research centers in the world. With more than 230 published papers, including co-authorship of a report on page 1175 of this issue of Science, Nosten ranks as one of the 10 most-cited researchers in his field.

    It was at SMRU that the so-called artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), a class of new drugs that has become the standard worldwide, were pioneered. Most of the clinical trials of malaria treatment for pregnant women—who are especially vulnerable to dying from the disease—were done here. Epidemiologist Philippe Guérin, who worked with Nosten for 3 years in the late 1990s, calls his contribution “somewhere between enormous and critical.” As to his demeanor, “people either love or hate François,” says Guérin.

    Those in the former category say you just have to get used to him. And indeed, Nosten seemed to thaw when, after a quick stop to pick up some cold beers, he invited this reporter to his wooden Thai house, set in a huge, private, fenced garden. “Welcome to Mae Sot,” he said after popping open the first two cans. And as the evening went on, Nosten talked passionately about his unusual career. He even managed a smile or two.

    True to his roots.

    After 25 years in Thailand, Nosten still feels “completely French.”


    Arms and legs

    Nosten, who grew up in Toulouse, France, arrived in Thailand in the early 1980s as a long-haired doctor for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the French charity. He knew next to nothing about malaria, and he wasn't trained as a scientist. It was his curiosity as a doctor that drove him to research. He quickly noticed that the standard malaria drugs weren't doing their job because the parasite had developed resistance, and he wondered whether mefloquine, a new drug developed by the U.S. Army, would do any better. So he embarked on his first clinical studies.

    In 1985, he met Nicholas White, a British malariologist who had just set up shop in Bangkok, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and had a professorship at the University of Oxford. White was scouting for malaria research locations; Nosten was running a jungle hospital just across the border in Myanmar. “It was made out of wood and leaves, but it was a very good hospital,” White recalls. Impressed, he convinced Nosten to leave MSF and do studies for him.

    A quarter-century later, SMRU has five clinics serving an area roughly 200 kilometers long on the Thai-Burmese border, along with a research unit in the center of Mae Sot, a town of some 30,000 inhabitants. Nosten employs more than 350 people, 20 of them ex-pats from various Western countries. White, still in Bangkok, remains “the brain” behind this operation, he says. “I'm the arms and the legs. But I don't care. I'm very happy with him, and I'm his disciple.” Guérin calls that false modesty, as Nosten has become an opinion leader himself.

    To his staff members, Nosten is “like a demanding, old-fashioned father,” says Marcus Rijken, a Dutch physician who came here 3 years ago to study the effects of malaria on unborn babies. Don't expect praise from him just for agreeing to come live in this dull, remote town, Rijken says: “He puts the bar very high, for himself and everybody else.” Although some have left in frustration, those who stayed say Nosten is also a very helpful and witty mentor and an inspiration in his own peculiar way.

    Porous border

    When it comes to public health, border areas are often chaotic. Differing policies, language barriers, and human movement create messy circumstances where infectious diseases thrive. The Thai-Burmese border is a prime example, says Nosten, as he provides a tour in his Land Rover the next morning. Burma, just across the river, is dirt-poor and has a dismal health system. Tens of thousands of refugees have lived in semipermanent refugee camps on the Thai side for decades—most of them members of the Karen, an ethnic minority fighting for autonomy.

    In addition, migrants from Myanmar continually cross the border looking for a better life. On any given day, dozens of people wade or raft across the Moei River. The Thai government is “in denial” about the influx, Nosten says, and the Thai health system is neither equipped nor financed to help people from Burma. “That's why we do it,” he says. While the Wellcome Trust funds his research, Nosten is continuously hunting for funds for the health service, which has gradually expanded and now includes maternal care and treatment for HIV and tuberculosis.


    SMRU is a research center as well as a health-care service for Karen refugees and migrants.


    The conditions have long been harsh. For about a decade, the team lived in Shoklo, one of the camps, under primitive conditions and with little contact with the outside world. Massive floods almost swept away the hospital several times in the early 1990s, and Nosten nearly drowned while rescuing a Karen nurse. “Get the files! Get the files!” former SMRU researcher Christine Luxemburger recalls yelling during one such episode; the data from a malaria vaccine study were among the few items saved from the water. The camp also came under attack from the Burmese army, and in 1997, the Thai government decided that SMRU staff members could no longer stay there overnight. They had to move to Mae Sot.

    Nosten says he's careful to stay out of politics. “If I started criticizing the Burmese generals or the Thai politicians, I couldn't survive here,” he says. Nosten identifies strongly with the Karen and is well-known and beloved by them, says staff manager Honey Moon, who's been with SMRU for 25 years and is Karen herself. He married a Karen woman in 1989, and although he speaks Karen, his Thai is rudimentary. White, who's fluent in Thai, handles most of the bureaucratic and political hurdles, while Mahidol University in Bangkok—on whose faculty both Nosten and White serve—provides important backing.

    Nosten says he's never tried that hard to integrate. “I was very happy to remain completely French,” he says. So French, indeed, that he taught his housekeeper how to make baguettes, and he keeps an apartment near the Place de la Bastille in Paris, where he travels several times a year. He received an important recognition from his home country when he won the prestigious $400,000 Christophe Mérieux award in 2008.

    Part of Nosten's appeal is that he has remained an MSF doctor at heart; his scientific curiosity is driven by the people he lives among, says Jean-René Kiechel of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, a nonprofit in Geneva, Switzerland, with which Nosten has collaborated. It's also what led Nosten to explore the potential of ACTs. When mefloquine started failing soon after it was introduced, Nosten and White decided to try a new family of drugs called the artemisinin derivatives, isolated in China from a plant named Artemisia annua. To preempt resistance, they proposed combining a derivative called artesunate with another drug, a novel concept in malaria. In 1991, they started the first clinical trial of a combination of artesunate and mefloquine; by 1994 they were convinced that it was safe and effective.

    SMRU has helped test every other ACT to come to the market since. But Nosten is frustrated that it took so long for combination therapies to become universally adopted. In Africa, in particular, ACTs weren't introduced broadly until about 5 years ago, despite evidence that older drugs were useless. “It's something strange about the malaria community,” he says. “There are a lot of preconceived ideas, a lot of things preventing people from changing their minds.” He says he's tried his best to change them—sometimes in not-so-subtle ways. “At meetings, I can be a bully,” he admits.


    Nosten attributes SMRU's success to its hybrid nature: part humanitarian, part scientific. “We're not coming in big white vans, taking samples, and disappearing,” he says. “We're embedded within the communities, so we have much better access to patients. And if treatment A works better than B, we can immediately implement that.” Malaria rates, for instance, have plummeted in recent years in the border area.

    But over a plate of spicy noodles at a roadside restaurant, he acknowledges that the model may not be sustainable. It's hard to attract people of international stature to the middle of nowhere for the long term. He says things might be easier if SMRU were split into a medical NGO, perhaps run by locals, and a research center where scientists could spend shorter amounts of time. “But if you do that the wrong way, then you break the link, and the research dies,” he says.

    “I guess I've created a monstrosity. I don't know what will happen with it after I'm gone,” he concludes, as he musters another one of his rare smiles.

  10. Astrophysics

    An Unsettled Debate About the Chemistry of the Sun

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Researchers thought they knew the sun very well. Now, they are squabbling over the abundance of different elements in it.

    Hot topic.

    The sun's chemical composition is a key yardstick for astronomy.


    On a cloudless August morning, Martin Asplund is sitting in the sun, taking a coffee break from an astronomy conference. The day is so blazingly bright it makes Asplund squint and turn away from the sunlight. But the 40-year-old astrophysicist is not shying away from a heated solar debate that he ignited a few years ago.

    In 2005, Asplund came out with a new picture of the chemical composition of the sun. His calculations showed that the abundances of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and neon in the star—the most plentiful elements in it besides hydrogen and helium—were about half as high as researchers had previously worked out. The new values solved a puzzle, because the previous calculations had always made the sun's chemistry seem oddly out of sync with that of its galactic environment. But when researchers plugged the new abundances into models of the solar interior, the resulting predictions about the sun's temperature profile no longer matched observations. The mismatch led to a debate over which of the two was right: the new abundances or the models.

    Five years later, the question has not been resolved. “We're left with a conundrum,” says Asplund, who is a director at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

    Getting the abundances and the models correct is not just important for studies of the sun. It has implications for other fields of astronomy, such as how stars evolve and what interstellar gas is made of. That's because the sun's elemental composition is used as the yardstick for measuring the composition of everything else in the universe, from distant galaxies to blobs of gas inside the Milky Way.

    Asplund's abundances have both fans and critics among other researchers. In the past 5 years, continued skepticism—mainly by astrophysicists who model the sun's interior—has forced Asplund's group to rework its calculations using more detailed physics. As a result, the values have shifted closer to the old abundances, as Asplund and colleagues reported in a 2009 paper in the Annual Reviews in Astronomy and Astrophysics. But the abundances are still only about two-thirds of the older ones, and the problems that creates remain fundamentally unchanged. Researchers have tried in vain to fine-tune models of the solar interior to match the new abundances.

    The debate provides a glimpse into the messy world of modeling, where results are often fraught with uncertainty and temporary truths are hammered out by the tweaking of parameters and grudging consensus. “It makes us realize that we do not understand the sun—and by extension other stars—as well as we believed,” says Aldo Serenelli, a solar modeler who works with Asplund at Garching. However, he is optimistic that the effort to reconcile solar models with the new abundances will eventually lead to new insights about the sun and other stars. “This is a very healthy exercise; it's what science is about, questioning our knowledge and understanding,” he says.

    A star is born

    The sun was of no special interest to Asplund when he got his Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics from Uppsala University in Sweden in 1997. He was developing models of the atmospheres of old stars so that he could use those stars as markers of galaxy formation and evolution.

    Previous researchers had already modeled the sun's atmosphere, simplifying their computations by flattening the solar sphere into a disk. Asplund, however, thought three-dimensional modeling of stellar atmospheres would be more accurate. Taking advantage of advances in computing, he developed a 3D picture of the turbulent gas flows and energy transfer in a star's atmosphere, taking into account the interaction between radiation and plasma.

    To test his models, Asplund turned to the star for which the most data are available: the sun. Over decades of study, researchers have developed a detailed picture of how this brilliant inferno works. At its core, millions of tons of hydrogen fuse into helium every second. The energy generated by this fusion radiates outward. At about two-thirds of the way to the sun's surface, the temperature becomes cool enough (about 2.3 million kelvin) to make the gas considerably more opaque to photons. Now, convection becomes dominant. Thermal columns carry hot material up to the surface, beyond which lies the solar atmosphere. Some of the energy eventually ends up as sunlight.

    Asplund's models accurately predicted the variation in the sun's brightness across the solar disk (a function of the solar atmosphere) and the intensity of sunlight at different wavelengths. Then Asplund applied a third test: checking whether his models could generate a detailed solar spectrum that matched observations. To do so, he needed to combine his models with a scheme other researchers had developed, mapping the cascade of events that occurs as radiation emanates from deep inside the sun. This scheme, known as a line formation code, describes how photons of different wavelengths interact with molecules and atoms in the gas; for example, getting absorbed by certain atoms that in turn emit other photons at new wavelengths. Together with the atmospheric models, it yields a unique spectrum for a given chemical composition.

    Asplund's models passed this test as well, generating a spectrum that looked like the real one. But they also yielded abundances of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and neon radically lower than the previously accepted values. That was a surprise, Asplund says: “I thought things would only change a little bit as a result of 3D modeling of the atmosphere.”

    Asplund made a splash with the new abundances at a symposium in Austin in June 2004. The work appeared a year later in the proceedings of the conference; one of the co-authors was Nicolas Grevesse of the University of Liège in Belgium, who had been involved in calculating the earlier abundances. Stellar astrophysicists embraced the lower values, largely because they matched what researchers expected from a star that formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the galaxy was poorer in heavy elements than it is today.

    Sound and fury

    It wasn't long, however, before the new values came under attack from solar modelers. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the old abundances had gained a foothold by helping astronomers solve a number of problems about the sun. Using them in models of the solar interior developed by Princeton University luminary John Bahcall and others, scientists had successfully predicted the characteristics of sound waves produced by the sun.

    Helioseismologists can measure the speed and other features of these waves from minor changes either in solar brightness or in the position of spectral lines as the sun's surface expands and shrinks ever so slightly. From these measurements, they can infer how the temperature and density varies with depth below the solar surface. The same measurements help determine where the inner boundary of the convective envelope lies.

    With the new abundances, researchers could no longer get the interior models to spit out sound speeds that matched observations. With less carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in the mix, the material inside the sun became more transparent than previously thought. As a result, the boundary where the cooler gas became opaque to radiation—the base of the convection zone—was now pushed out toward the surface.

    In August 2006, Asplund was an invited speaker at a helioseismology conference in Prague, at which the problems were discussed. “I knew that there would be some hostility,” he says. Sure enough, his talk touched off a barrage of probing questions. It was clear that “they didn't believe our results, just as we didn't believe their models were correct,” Asplund says. One of the skeptics in the audience—Marc Pinsonneault, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University in Columbus and an expert in modeling the sun's interior—suggested that Asplund and his colleagues had gone wrong by simulating only a small rectangular slab of the solar atmosphere instead of the whole thing.

    “I decided we're going to redo everything,” Asplund says. He and his colleagues developed “whole new atmospheric models” from scratch, this time simulating the entire solar atmosphere. “We tested them against even more observational constraints.” By 2008, Asplund felt certain that his models were not the problem.

    It's complicated.

    Asplund (above) developed a 3D picture (inset) of the sun's atmosphere.


    That year, Aldo Serenelli, who had worked with Bahcall on interior models, applied for a position in Asplund's lab. Asplund was enthusiastic about working with somebody from the opposition camp, especially as he himself had no experience with modeling the interior. “I hired him not to convince him but to see whether we could find a solution that may have been overlooked,” he says.

    Serenelli says he joined Asplund with an open mind. “The agreement between solar models and helioseismology measurements was astonishingly good with older abundances, so it was hard to dismiss those results,” he says. “On the other hand, Asplund's work was by far the most sophisticated and realistic study of the solar atmosphere.”

    In the past 2 years, Asplund and Serenelli have only grown more convinced of their respective positions. Meanwhile, Serenelli and others have tried a number of solutions to make the interior models work with the new abundances.

    One approach assumes that elements such as neon and iron in the sun have a higher opacity (or lower transparency) than researchers have assumed. That shift would wipe out some of the gain in transparency resulting from the lower abundances. “It solves a fair amount of the problem, but it isn't enough,” says Sarbani Basu, an astrophysicist at Yale University.

    Researchers have also played with how quickly heavier elements sink down in the sun. That has not done the trick, either. Basus says researchers could also try modifying the equation of state describing the fundamental behavior of a gas under extreme temperature and pressure conditions, which astrophysicists have to borrow from experiments at nuclear-weapons labs. But that would be fine-tuning too many parameters to make Asplund's abundances work, she says. “I'm not willing to do that. At some point, you have to raise Occam's razor,” the principle that simpler solutions are preferable to more-complex ones.

    Others think the problem lies with models of the solar interior. “I think the standard solar model is missing something,” says W. Dave Arnett, a researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Arnett and colleagues are working to improve interior models by getting a better handle on turbulent convection in stars, which is still poorly understood.

    Meanwhile, Asplund's 3D models of the sun's atmosphere are no longer the only game in town. Other researchers have developed sophisticated models of their own. One group, led by Hans-Günter Ludwig of the Paris Observatory, has produced abundance values somewhat higher than Asplund's, although still much smaller than the old values.

    The continuing discrepancy “would suggest either new physics—exciting, if unlikely—or major errors in the existing physical ingredients of the models, which would have to be tracked down,” says Pinsonneault. It's hard to predict what the outcome of such efforts would be, he adds, “but it could be very important for our understanding of the physics of stars.”