News this Week

Science  04 Nov 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6056, pp. 574

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Klong Luang, Pathum Thani, and Bangkok, Thailand
    Thai Floods Hit Research Infrastructure
    2 - Milan, Italy
    Court Endorses Vatican Rescue of Research Center
    3 - Okinawa, Japan
    Okinawa Institute Officially a Graduate University
    4 - New York, New York
    University Teams Bid for NYC Research Campus
    5 - Oak Flat, Arizona
    Archaeology Groups Oppose Proposed Arizona Land Swap

    Klong Luang, Pathum Thani, and Bangkok, Thailand

    Thai Floods Hit Research Infrastructure


    Flooding at the Thailand Science Park.


    Thailand's flooding is taking its toll on the country's research institutes and universities. The campus of the Asian Institute of Technology in Pathum Thani province, 30 kilometers north of Bangkok, is now “completely inundated under flood waters,” according to the institute's Web site. A Thammasat University campus suffered similar damage while the adjacent Thailand Science Park, home to four national research institutes and 60 private labs, fared better. Water covers parts of the grounds but spared the buildings. Once flood waters recede, researchers should be able to quickly resume normal activities, says Noppawan Tanpipat, vice president of Thailand's National Science and Technology Development Agency.

    Closer to Bangkok, last week Mahidol University closed its Salaya Campus, which hosts the engineering and environment departments as well as administrative offices. “Undoubtedly, this affects teaching, research and services on several [levels],” says Pakit Vichyanond, deputy dean of international affairs at Mahidol's Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital in central Bangkok. Speculation on whether the worst is now past—as the country's Flood Relief Operation Command told the local press—“is very disputable,” Vichyanond says.

    Milan, Italy

    Court Endorses Vatican Rescue of Research Center

    The financially troubled San Raffaele del Monte Tabor Foundation, which funds and oversees one of Italy's most prestigious private biomedical research centers, may have gained a new lease on life. Last week, an Italian bankruptcy court approved an offer made by the Institute for Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican Bank, and Italian entrepreneur Victor Malacalza to rescue the foundation, which has reportedly accumulated close to €1.5 billion in debt due to poor financial decisions and overly rapid expansion.

    Scientists at the foundation's San Raffaele Institute hope the bankruptcy court's endorsement of the offer, in which the Vatican and Malacalza would take over €500 million of debt and invest €250 million more, will persuade funding bodies to resume now-frozen payments and stem a potential exodus of researchers from the institute. “We have nothing to do with the money hole and San Raffaele still represents a center of excellence,” says immunologist Maria Grazia Roncarolo, the institute's scientific director. The foundation's creditors will next review details of the plan.

    Okinawa, Japan

    Okinawa Institute Officially a Graduate University

    Ready to teach.

    The Okinawa Institute of Science and Techology.


    A Japanese graduate school backed by Nobel laureates Sydney Brenner, Susumu Tonegawa, Jerome Friedman, and others has cleared the last hurdle required to start teaching. On 28 October, Japan's cabinet approved the law formally recognizing the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University. The school will welcome its first batch of students in September 2012.

    OIST supporters, including domestic politicians and scientists, want to shake up Japan's universities by creating a new academic model emphasizing interdisciplinary research. OIST is also attempting to attract non-Japanese faculty members by using English for teaching and administrative affairs. The OIST Graduate University will start its academic year in September, instead of in April as is Japanese custom, to be more in sync with international norms.

    Jonathan Dorfan, a physicist and former director of what is now the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, officially becomes the university's first president on 1 November, but has been president-elect since July 2010, overseeing the development of curriculum and the push to complete faculty recruitment.

    New York, New York

    University Teams Bid for NYC Research Campus

    New York City received bids from at least five university-based teams on 28 October to build a science and engineering center in the city.

    In July, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he would put up land and $100 million in seed money for universities and corporations willing to invest in a facility aimed at turning the metropolis into a high-tech hub similar to Silicon Valley. An economic analysis conducted earlier this year suggested that such an institute could generate as many as 30,000 jobs in the city.

    Eighteen partnerships representing 27 public and private groups initially expressed interest. At least five groups have submitted a final proposal, including three teams led by New York state–based private institutions Cornell, Columbia, and New York universities. All have partners from either academia or industry. The other two groups are led by Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is also partnering with New York University in its proposal. Bloomberg is expected to announce his pick by early 2012 and has said he hopes the winner will break ground on the new facility before he leaves office in 2013.

    Oak Flat, Arizona

    Archaeology Groups Oppose Proposed Arizona Land Swap

    Archaeology groups are lining up against a proposal, approved 26 October by the U.S. House of Representatives, to give a copper mining company a large chunk of federal land in Arizona in exchange for private lands. The proposal would swap about 971 hectares of U.S. Forest Service land thought to sit atop a vast deposit of high-quality copper for about 2144 hectares of private holdings, including 1214 hectares of ecologically important land along the lower San Pedro River.

    The trade would be “a blatant giveaway of the nation's public land to a single private stakeholder” and would set “a dangerous precedent” because it wouldn't get normal prior review under environmental and historic preservation laws, William F. Limp, president of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Washington, D.C., and colleagues argue in a 24 October letter to lawmakers signed by eight archaeology and preservation groups. That means no “assurances that priceless historic and cultural resources will be protected,” they say. Although the House approved the bill, the Senate has yet to take up a companion measure.

  2. Newsmakers

    Tech Entrepreneur Offers Grants for Indie Science

    Working on a radical biology project in your garage but don't have the cash for that DNA sequencer you spotted on eBay? A new program launched by a billionaire tech entrepreneur has your back.



    Breakout Labs is the brainchild of Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. Thiel wants to fund “revolutionary” science by do-it-yourself scientists and those with start-up companies that aren't far enough along to attract venture capital.

    Independent researchers can fill out a 10-page application at the site Academic researchers can apply, but must be working on the project “outside the confines of a traditional university research setup,” says program founder and executive director, Lindy Fishburne.

    The foundation hopes to make 10 to 20 awards in the first year, ranging from around $50,000 to $350,000. The grantees must publish in open access journals. They also must agree to help support more projects, either by sharing a small portion of future royalties with Breakout Labs or by assigning intellectual property to the program in exchange for keeping some royalties.

  3. Random Samples

    They Said It

    “This modest-sized icy dirtball's influence upon our planet is so incredibly minuscule that my subcompact automobile exerts a greater gravitational influence on Earth than the comet ever would.”

    —NASA planetary scientist Don Yeomans puzzling over why comet Elenin became the topic of doomsday prophesies last year. Elenin, which had its closest approach to Earth on 16 October, recently broke up into a stream of debris.

    Earth-Observing Satellite Makes It Into Orbit


    Third time's the charm: NASA's National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite lifted off 28 October from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That success breaks NASA's recent trend of failed Earth-observing satellite launches, including the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009 and Glory earlier this year.

    The $1.5 billion NPP, expected to operate for 5 years, carries scientific instruments designed to track everything from the ozone layer to ice cover, and to help researchers develop long- and short-term forecasts. It will also test-drive technologies for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) pending Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), a $10 billion, multi-spacecraft system that's been plagued with technical delays and scrutinized by budget-conscious lawmakers. The first JPSS launch is not expected until 2016 or 2017, and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has warned that skimping on the system's funding will leave scientists with fewer tools to collect critical data.

    By the Numbers

    90%—Drop in blood lead levels worldwide due to lead removal from gasoline in 175 countries, according to the United Nations Environment Programme's Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles.

    +/− 1°—Accuracy of a navigation method—possibly used by Vikings—based on Iceland spars, which depolarize sunlight to pinpoint a cloud-hidden sun, a Proceedings of the Royal Society A study finds.

    The Fraternal Order of Fake Eye Doctors


    An ancient manuscript, an indecipherable language, a secret society: These are not plot points from Dan Brown's next novel, but the findings of researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles and Uppsala University in Sweden. Led by USC natural language researcher Kevin Knight, the team cracked a ciphered code to uncover the 250-year-old writings of a German secret society.

    Little is known about the origins of the 105-page Copiale Cipher. But early this year, after giving a talk on using code-breaking techniques in language translation software, Knight received a copy of the book from a colleague. He and his team picked out patterns among 75,000 abstract symbols and fed the information into a language processing program. The coded language turned out to be German, obscured by symbols representing three-letter combinations or doubled consonants.

    After 4 months, a translation emerged, outlining initiation rituals for a secret society. Strangely, the text references ophthalmological equipment that would have been outdated by the 1730s—approximately when the group was active. “We concluded that it was basically a group of people who got together and pretended to be eye doctors,” Knight says. The code breakers presented their findings at an Association for Computational Linguistics meeting in Portland, Oregon, in June.

    The text also explores the natural rights of man, but its secrecy probably owes more to secret societies being in vogue in the early 1700s than political intrigue, Knight says. “If you're in a secret society, writing in code is just one of those things you do.” Knight's team is currently targeting other unsolved ciphers such as the Zodiac Killer letters and the 15th century Voynich manuscript.

  4. Geophysics

    Vigil at North Korea's Mount Doom

    1. Richard Stone

    Changbai-Paektu unleashed one of the largest eruptions in recent millennia; scientists are joining arms to discern when the volcano may roar back to life.

    Slumbering giant.

    North Korean scientists descend a several-hundred-meter-long staircase to reach a singular research base next to Mount Paektu's caldera lake.


    MOUNT PAEKTU, NORTH KOREA—James Hammond's tan fedora pokes out of the tiny log cabin, followed by the rest of the 30-year-old seismologist. He crouches at the entryway and types commands into a laptop to activate a steel cylinder on a shelf inside the shelter. “Give us a stomp,” he asks a bemused colleague, who then figures out what he should do. Hammond frowns and fiddles with the wiring. “Another one!” Seconds later, he grins. “That was a magnitude 4.2,” he says, beaming. Then the moment's signifi cance sinks in. “We've just deployed the first broadband seismometer in DPRK,” Hammond says, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

    Hammond, a researcher with Imperial College London, knew it would be a miracle if the seismometer were to record a major tremor. The instrument stayed in place on a steep slope above Paektu Bridge Volcano Research Station near DPRK's northern border for just one night in September, after which Hammond boxed it up and hauled it back to the United Kingdom. The “training exercise,” Hammond says, gave the North Korean researchers hands-on experience with Western instrumentation. The fleeting deployment also has a powerful symbolic value: It demonstrates North Korea's openness to collaborate on a project of vital importance to the region.

    Paektu Bridge is one of several North Korean stations monitoring Mount Paektu, a volcano that straddles the border with China. (Two-thirds of the mountain is in China, where it is called Changbai.*) Historical records and ash layers indicate that Changbaiexplodes to life every 100 years or so, the last time in 1903. One eruption in particular mesmerizes scientists. Around 1000 years ago, the volcano rained tephra—pumice and ash—across 33,000 square kilometers of northeast China and Korea, dumping 5 centimeters of ash as far away as Japan. The so called millennium eruption was one of the largest of the past few thousand years, rivaling the 1815 Tambora eruption in Indonesia.


    See a Slideshow based on this article.

    Scientists are keeping a wary vigil. “The hazard is huge,” says Xu Jiandong, a volcanologist at the Institute of Geology of the China Earthquake Administration (CEA) in Beijing. Because Changbai's silica-rich magma is viscous and gassy, allowing pressure to build, the next eruption should be explosive, Xu says. In recent months, Chinese researchers have observed geophysical anomalies, including elevated temperatures of hot springs and deflation of the caldera rim. But most concur that there is no evidence of magma rising toward the surface, which would signal an imminent eruption.

    When Changbai next stirs to life, an immediate concern will be the fate of Tianchi caldera's deep lake. The only outlet is a narrow valley on the volcano's north flank, in Chinese territory. A moderate-sized eruption could send a lahar— vegetation, water, rocks, and mud—hurtling down the valley, threatening 60,000 residents and expensive infrastructure such as hydropower stations. A millennium-scale eruption, says CEA volcanologist Wei Haiquan, “would be catastrophic.” Some 100,000 people would be vulnerable to avalanches of superheated gas and tephra called pyroclastic flows. Ash would ruin crops throughout the region and affect transpacific flights. “The damage would be unimaginable,” says Kim Hang Myong, former director of the Institute of Volcanology of the Earthquake Administration of DPRK in Pyongyang.

    Chinese scientists have ringed their side of the mountain with broadband seismometers and other monitoring instruments. Over the next 5 years, CEA plans to spend $24 million to upgrade its facilities. But the part of the mountain in North Korea has been mostly beyond the reach of foreigners and modern equipment—until now.

    In September, Hammond, volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and I were the first westerners to visit North Korea's volcano field stations. The unprecedented encounter was facilitated by two nongovernmentalorganizations: Pyongyang International Information Center on New Technology and Economy, or PIINTEC, based in Pyongyang, and the Environmental Education Media Project in Beijing. The British duo came away impressed with the North Korean scientists, who have had to make do with antiquated equipment or fashion their own. And DPRK's seven Paektu observatories will pave the way for fieldwork. “The infrastructure is fantastic. They're ready for state-of-the-art equipment,” Oppenheimer says. He and Hammond plan to return to Paektu next summer for research and hope to catalyze an ambitious campaign of crossborder measurements as early as 2013.

    In another sign of glasnost, Chinese scientists may also conduct research at Paektu next summer. Although geologists on both sides have made forays, this would mark the first geophysics fieldwork between the countries.

    The main aim is heightened vigilance. “We hope to build up our capability to monitor the volcano and forecast eruption scenarios,” says Yun Yong Kun, deputy director generalof DPRK's Earthquake Administration. Toward that end, he says, “we welcome scientists with open arms.” Studies in North Korea could also help penetrate scientific conundrums, including the true scale of the millennium eruption.

    Deep scars

    The golden leaves of Changbai larch, a species unique to the region, glow in the pale afternoon light. A few meters ahead, one tree leans precariously over a precipice. The valley below looks as if it were coated with chocolate meringue. Clinging to the sheer walls are wispy, gravity-defying spires straight out of a Dr. Seuss story, hollow ignimbrite structures formed by escaping gas. A 120-meter-deep scar, some 30 kilometers from Changbai's west flank in Chinese territory, was carved by a pyroclastic flow that barreled down the mountain, incinerating everything in its path. A deeper, longer gash runs north.

    Seismic shift.

    Breaking new ground, James Hammond (top left) and Clive Oppenheimer prepare to installa broadband seismometer. North Korea welcomes cooperation at Paektu, says Institute of Volcanology Director Kim Myong Song.


    Volcanic eruptions are rated on a scale that depends on the volume or mass of lava and tephra they disgorge. It's comparable to the Richter scale for earthquakes. Anything above magnitude 8 rates as a supereruption. These gargantuan blasts spew more than 1000 cubic kilometers of ejecta, such as those hundreds of thousands of years ago that formed the calderas at Yellowstone in Wyoming. The most recent supereruption was New Zealand's Lake Taupo volcano about 26,500 years ago. Only a few 7s have occurred during the last 11,500 years; the millennium eruption was one of them.

    On the North Korean side of the volcano, the wounds from that titanic blast are only slowly healing. “Stop here!” Oppenheimer commands. The minibus pulls over near a bone-white ridge on Paektu's treeless east flank. Oppenheimer scrambles down an embankment and examines a few-meterthick layer of exposed pumice. The friable rock crumbles in his hand. “This must be from the millennium eruption,” he says. Embedded in it are chunks of harder rock. “These lithics were part of the vent. They were ripped out by the ascending magma,” Oppenheimer says. The fragments have their own story to tell. From their size and distribution, for instance, scientists can reconstruct the plume's height; models suggest that it reached 25 kilometers.

    There's a more fundamental question, Oppenheimer says. “Why is Changbai here in the first place?” he asks. “We don't know much about what's going on inside the Earth that leads to the kinds of lava and pumice you see there.” Most active volcanoes lie at tectonic-plate boundaries, like the Ring of Fire girdling the Pacifi c Ocean. Subduction churns magma into their conduits, like a stoker shoveling coal in a steam locomotive. Other volcanoes are fed by mantle plumes that funnel magma to the surface; prime examples are the volcanoes that continue to shape the Hawaiian Islands. Changbai is one of a handful of big volcanoes that defy easy categorization. Although it sits about 1200 kilometers west of the Ring of Fire, it seems to be fueled by deep subduction of the West Pacific Plate, says CEA seismologist Lei Jianshe. Some experts, however, reject the notion that subduction is the driving force.

    Scientists have pieced together a timeline of the baffling volcano's history. Changbai began to form about 1 million years ago, after trachyte became the dominant composition of the magma spilling across the region. “The lava grew more viscous and piled up,” says geologist Song Gung Ho of DPRK's Institute of Volcanology. Then about 170,000 years ago, lava disgorged from smaller cones cooled into blood-red scoriae or cinders.

    An explosive new phase started with a bang 4000 years ago when a massive eruption scattered gray ash over northeastern China and Korea. Later, the millennium eruption left a similar mark: deposits of pale comenditic pumice studded with black fragments ripped from the cone. Scribes recorded minor eruptions in 1668, 1702, and 1903. The story may not end there. The “most worrisome” scenario is that we are in the midst of a cycle of millennium-scale eruptions, says Cho Moonsup, a petrologist at Seoul National University.

    Changbai's history and possibly its future could be revealed in the panoply of colors and textures of pumice scattered around the caldera rim. “These rocks tell so much about the volcano's past behavior,” says Oppenheimer, who spends several weeks a year at Mount Erebus in Antarctica and other volcanic hot spots. “By looking at deposits of different ages, you can begin to understand the cycles.” For example, the amounts of CO2 and other volatiles in melt inclusions can reveal how much gas might have been expelled from the magma when the volcano erupted. Such information, Oppenheimer says, “enables us to build a modelof a volcano's plumbing system just before it erupts.”

    It won't be easy. Even at volcanoes like Etna, Vesuvius, and Kilauea that have been observed for hundreds of years, Oppenheimer says, “we still don't understand everything about how they work.”

    Strange signs

    Hoping to find clues to Changbai's next move, CEA aims to build one of the world's most ambitious volcano observatories. Plans call for installing real-time gas sensor arrays, adding to a network of 11 digital seismic stations and 16 GPS stations, and drilling a deep borehole in the volcano's flank for a suite of instruments. “Our goal is to create a network that's capable of forecasting an eruption,” says Xu, who leads a CEA group that monitors six of China's 14 known active volcanoes, defi ned as those that have erupted in the past 10,000 years.

    They have a solid foundation. Around 15 years ago, Chinese researchers established Tianchi Volcano Observatory on Changbai's north flank. The station is acutely vulnerable: It sits on the Erdaobaihe River—the outlet from the caldera lake—and could easily be demolished by a lahar. Several years ago, CEA built a second, safer perch, Changbaishan Volcano Observatory, 50 kilometers northwest of the caldera.

    Sizing it up.

    The millennium eruption was one of the biggest in the past several thousand years, as thick pumice layers in North Korea attest. Chinese scientists sample deposits (right) near the caldera rim on Changbai's south flank.


    But Tianchi observatory, still staffed, has a hidden asset. A short hike behind the station is a massive steel door in the side of a hill. A technician unlocks it and leads Xu and me inside. It's pitch-black; we use our cell phone display screens to fi nd our way. Built in the mid-1990s, the 65-meter-long chamber has a shaft at the end holding a broadband seismometer and, intriguingly, two 10-meterlong quartz tubes. Geophysicists monitor minute changes in conductivity in the crystal instruments, each a tiltmeter and tensometer, to track the mountain's deformation.

    CEA's surveillance indicates that Changbai is biding its time. There was a flurry of excitement in June 2002 when swarms of tremors racked the mountain. CEA traced the epicenter to 5 kilometers beneath the volcano's cone, where the main magma chamber is thought to lie. Over the next 3 years Changbai shuddered, sometimes experiencing more than 200 spasms in a month; the background rate is fewer than 10 per month. Activity crested on 19 March 2003, when more than 500 tremors were recorded. CEA observations showed that the mountain rose about 68 millimeters over that period—fi ve times the rate before the shaking started. Some scientists argued that the tremors were due to gas bubbles: volcanic indigestion. Others believed magma was rising toward the cone and braced for a blast. But after a swarm in May 2005, Changbai's seismicity receded to background levels.

    However quiet the ground may be now, there are curious changes underfoot. Over the past 2 years, the CEA team has determined that the caldera rim has slumped a few centimeters even as the surrounding land continues to rise. The deflation has left researchers scratching their heads, as has last year's 90-degree twist in the predominant land motion, from southwesterly to southeasterly.

    There are other anomalies. In 2008, Korean scientists discovered a new fumarole, or gas vent, near the east flank, 40 kilometers from the caldera. CEA scientists, meanwhile, observed an odd burst of sulfur dioxide last November and measured fluctuations in hot springs on the north flank. Two years ago, temperatures suddenly shot up 2° to 3°C on average, then went back down.

    Belly of the beast.

    Using magnetotelluric soundings, Chinese scientists have imaged what they presume is Changbai's main magma chamber. North Korean MT data suggest magma is ascending.


    What these phenomena augur is a matter of debate. “The new evidence shows that the volcano will soon enter an active phase,” argues Liu Guo Ming, deputy director of Changbaishan Volcano Observatory. Geologist Yun Sung-hyo of Pusan National University in South Korea agrees. “We urgently need emergency response plan,” he says. Others insist that fears about a looming eruption are overblown.

    Terra nova

    A detailed probe of the magma chamber might provide some answers. But no matter how many instruments the Chinese put on their side of the volcano, a definitive view of its plumbing willonly come after the North Koreans wire up their side as well.

    There are two main methods of penetrating the interior. One is to track the speed of seismic waves from controlled explosions, revealing the composition and consistency of the rock. A low-velocity anomaly is usually interpreted as a magma chamber, for example. A second method is to survey the area with magnetotelluric (MT) sensors, which map subsurface variations in conductivity.

    Changbai's underbelly is complex. Seismic scans have revealed globs of magma, 100 kilometers wide, lined up “like a string of beads” around 1000 kilometers below the surface, Wei says. As this magma ascends, he says, it mixes and changes composition. The volcano's main magma chamber appears to lie several kilometers below the surface, although as Hammond notes, “it's likely that magma pools at many depths in the crust.” Finer imaging is needed, Lei says. The fi ndings so far, he says, “are rough.”

    North Korean scientists have taken a stab at mapping Paektu's main magma chamber. In 2003, they built their own MT machine. “I'm very impressed,” Hammond says. “It's a complicated technique.” While the approach is widely used in oilexploration and other subsurface mapping, few geophysicists are familiar with the complex devices. Asked to explain their resourcefulness, one North Korean volcanologist responds, simply, “Juche!”—North Korea's credo of self-reliance.

    Lasting impression.

    Gravity-defying spires, formed by escaping gas, cling to the walls of a pyroclastic valley gouged during the millennium eruption.


    Using their machine, the North Korean team has discerned what they believe is a magma chamber at a depth of 6 kilometers. Their MT data indicate that since 2007, “the depth of magma is getting shallower. We believe it is ascending,” says Kim Hang Myong. But he acknowledges that their MT device has wide error bars. “We wonder about the reliability of our data,” Kim says. “He's right to be cautious,” Oppenheimer says. “The spatial resolution of MT is very coarse.”

    A complete picture of Changbai's plumbing would only come from seismic and MT surveys traversing the whole volcano. That would require installing on the North Korean side as many as eight broadband seismometers to zero in on tremors, Hammond says. Cross-border surveys would also require explicit agreements from both governments, scientists say. China and North Korea are allies but wary of monitoring. Last July, North Korea adopted a law requiring foreigners who want to carry out volcanological or seismic research to get permission from the Earthquake Administration, and North Korean scientists must accompany them in the field. (China has similar regulations.) Seismic measurements are sensitive for another reason. In September 2006, several days before its first nuclear test, North Korea asked China to turn off its seismometers near the border. They repeated the request before their second test in 2009.

    Good vibrations.

    Ri Gyong Song is hoping for broadband seismometers.


    Caldera duty

    In the summer of 1999, Kim Myong Song, director of DPRK's Institute of Volcanology, conducted an arduous survey of the steep hillside behind Paektu Bridge station. The institute had been founded 3 years earlier. Among other urgent tasks in setting up a network of observatories, Kim was searching for a patch of land with bedrock near the surface, where his team could installa seismometer. “We found the perfect spot, with little background noise,” he says. He and a colleague hauled logs up the hilland built a shelter for the instrument.

    It also worked well for the British broadband seismometer during its brief run in September. As Hammond installed it, Oppenheimer used duct tape to attach a white plastic GPS receiver to a pine tree branch to provide a time stamp for the seismic signals, which are recorded when an earthquake rattles the extremely sensitive seismometer. Ri Gyong Song, a seismologist at DPRK's Institute of Volcanology, who like Director Kim studied theoretical physics at DPRK's elite Kim Il Sung University, took careful notes. “We urgently need this kind of seismometer,” he says.

    North Korea has deployed six seismometers at Paektu, but only one is digital; the rest are modif ied Chinese analog seismometers. The researchers use solar panels and car batteries to power their instruments and a transmitter that sends data to Pyongyang via a national intranet. There are frequent outages in winter, when snow covers the panels, Kim Hang Myong says.

    Despite the hardships, the 200 North Korean researchers who study the volcano have a jaw-dropping asset: a station operated year-round on the shore of the caldera lake. “It's unbelievable. I can't think of anyplace else that has a manned station inside a crater,” Oppenheimer says. If the volcano were to awaken in summertime, the sentinels at Lake Chon Research Station could flee up a stone staircase that zigzags several hundred meters to the caldera rim. By mid-October, snow and ice make the steps too treacherous to navigate. Four men overwinter in the three-room warren. If the staircase were impassable in an emergency, they would rely on their compatriots to put an Austrian-built gondola, shuttered in winter, into service.

    The team's main task is to track gases percolating up from the volcano's vent, which is 384 meters below Tianchi's surface, on the Chinese side, and two underwater springs to the south. They head out on Tianchi by boat to take samples every 5 days until December, when the lake freezes over. From then until the thaw, they strike out on the ice on foot, sampling from all three springs, including the vent on the Chinese side. “The lake is common area,” a technician explains.

    Researchers analyze samples in a cozy room with heated linoleum floors. On the wall, a long wooden board, painted red with white Korean characters, offers encouragement: “Great Leader Kim Il Sung lives together with us.” With several gas sensors out of commission, technicians are only able to measure chloride and pH, fluctuations of which may presage an eruption. With the volcano in a quiet phase, Chinese researchers are content to measure gases wafting from hot springs in their territory every 3 months.

    Volcanologists in arms

    The Chinese and Koreans devote great attention to the volcano not only because it poses a serious threat but also because it resonates deeply with their cultural identities. The Chinese consider Changbai the birthplace of the Manchu people. Koreans revere the mountain. “Paektu represents our nation's soul. It's our ancestral home,” Kim Myong Song says.

    Oppenheimer and Hammond realize that getting an international research program at this iconic mountain off the ground will require more than their expertise—it will take science diplomacy, too. “There are many conflicts that can arise when a foreign team of scientists comes to a volcano. They arrive, collect data, write papers, and go home,” Oppenheimer says. “It's important that the Koreans do this on their terms.” The Koreans say they are ready. “We can ensure conditions for data sharing and making joint measurements,” says Pak Kwang Pam, head of foreign technical cooperation with DPRK's Seismological Bureau.

    All signs suggest things are off to a promising start, Oppenheimer says: “I hope very much this is just the beginning.”

    • * Because most of the volcano is in China, this article refers to it as Changbai, except when describing work in DPRK.

  5. Geophysics

    A Very Big Bang

    1. Richard Stone

    The millennium eruption of Changbai, a volcano that straddles the border between North Korea and China, was one of the biggest in recorded history and is an enduring riddle.

    Witness to catastrophe.

    Trees buried in pumice on Paektu's east slope point to an early date of the millennium eruption.


    Changbai's millennium eruption, one of the biggest in recorded history, is an enduring riddle. Piecing together what happened 1000 years ago could help scientists gauge the volcano's modern-day risk.

    One major uncertainty is how much material, or tephra, was ejected during the eruption. Estimates range from 30 to 172 cubic kilometers. Prevailing winds swept much of the ash eastward, blanketing the northern Korean Peninsula with the thickest millennium layers. A true picture of the eruption will come only from mapping deposits on the Korean side of the border.

    An intrepid German researcher, Hans-Ulrich Schmincke, was the first to take a stab at that. After the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines shot ash into the stratosphere, causing a brief global cooling, Schmincke, a volcanologist with the Leibniz Institute of Marine Science in Kiel, grew interested in probing the climate effects of past eruptions. For 2 years, he tried to get a visa to North Korea so he could study Paektu and failed. So in the summer of 1993, he and graduate student Susanne Horn set out for China for fieldwork at Changbai. Back in Beijing, Schmincke dropped in on the North Korean Embassy. “I'm a person who never gives up, he says. He gave an impassioned spiel on Paektu's threat, and they got their visas.

    Arriving at Paektu a few days later, Schmincke was struck by “the huge layers of pumice.” He persuaded their guides to allow them to sample from a wide area. “We got lots of data,” he says. They calculated that the tephra volume was 96 cubic kilometers and that the eruption would have triggered a marked cooling effect.

    North Korean volcanologists are attempting to refine estimates of tephra volume by mapping the millennium ash layer. So far, they've drilled 170 boreholes, 127 millimeters in diameter, on the volcano's east flank and the surrounding countryside. “Their drilling work is fabulous,” says Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Korean researchers will begin analyzing the data over the winter.

    Another question is when did the millennium eruption happen? “There's no agreement on the date,” says Xu Jiandong of the China Earthquake Administration (CEA). In the early 1990s, CEA volcanologist Liu Ruoxin collected chunks of carbonized wood from the volcano's north flank. Using radiocarbon analysis, he put the date at 1205 C.E.

    Schmincke and Horn turned back the clock. On Paektu's east flank in 1993, they sawed off wood from a larch buried in 8 meters of millennium ash and brought it back to Kiel for radiocarbon dating. They pegged the eruption to the year 969 C.E. Other radiocarbon studies suggest it could have occurred a few decades earlier.


    Hans-Ulrich Schmincke's fieldwork in North Korea in 1993 yielded insights into Paektu's potent past.


    Although most experts put stock in the earlier dates, Xu says the matter isn't settled. He argues that the eruption might have been two or more events spread over a few centuries. Historical documents shed little light; one Korean text from 1199 C.E. refers to “white-hair rain,” perhaps an oblique reference to the millennium eruption. The mute record is not surprising, says Cho Moonsup, a petrologist at Seoul National University. Long ago in Korea, he explains, scholars risked execution if they chronicled bad omens. Chinese and Japanese annals are silent.

    Xu hopes to have the last word on the millennium eruption's timing. A few months ago, he shipped several dozen samples from four trees buried under millennium deposits on the three Chinese flanks, including the charred wood that Liu dated, to Switzerland for high-precision radiocarbon analysis using accelerated mass spectrometry. Results are due next month.

  6. Robert Trivers Profile

    Sharp Insights and a Sharp Tongue

    1. Kai Kupferschmidt

    Brilliant but troubled, Robert Trivers made his mark dissecting the evolution of human relationships. In a new book, he tackles deceit and self-deception.



    Mention the name Robert Trivers to those in the know, and the reaction you get is awe. Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker calls him “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought.” Stuart West, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, recently described him as “one of the most influentialevolutionary biologists since Charles Darwin.” And in 1999, Time named him one of the 20th century's 100 greatest thinkers and scientists. Yet most biology students do not even know the name.

    In the 1970s, Trivers penned a series of landmark papers that have been cited thousands of times and opened up the study of human relationships to biology. Looking in turn at interactions between friends, then lovers, then parent and child, he helped to lay the foundations for sociobiology, or a “Darwinian social theory,” as he called it. Then he disappeared from view, only to reemerge in the 1990s with a remarkable second career that has also led to his latest effort: a book called The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life that might wellintroduce him to a larger audience.

    The person who has led this remarkable life is a man of 68 years, with a deep voice and an infectious laugh. He has recently had his hip replaced and does some leg exercises while being interviewed. Trivers likes to make fun of the fact that he has grown old. “Did you know that the enjoyment of sex is actually correlated with sperm count in the ejaculate?” he asks. “So it is true that in old age you appreciate the smaller things more. There are no big things to enjoy anymore.” But he also brags about his beautiful new black leather coat and has the air of a young man more interested in wine and women than lectures.

    Trivers followed a winding road to biology. He was interested in pure mathematics first, having taught himself differential and integral calculus when he was 14. But by 18 he had lost interest and wanted to become a lawyer. “I wanted to fight for justice, for the poor, and against racial discrimination,” he says without a trace of irony. Indeed, one of his most vivid memories of childhood is his mother coming to the dinner table in tears, because a white police officer in Washington, D.C., had shot to death a 14-year-old black child for jaywalking. “Growing up in Maryland, it was very obvious to me that black people were living a very oppressed life,” he says.

    But at age 21, studying history as an undergraduate at Harvard, Trivers suffered a mental breakdown. He would stay up all night, reading the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was convinced that he had insights into Wittgenstein's ideas that no one else had. Trivers wound up spending 3 months in a hospital. Such breakdowns would recur throughout his life and cause him immense suffering, but Trivers calls that first one the most painful: “In the beginning, I did not know who or what I was.” When he got back on his feet, he applied to law school but decided against it when the schools wanted a copy of his medical records.

    After Trivers started to work for a company illustrating and then writing schoolbooks for fifth-graders, he discovered the beauty of evolution. “Three billion years of the history of life, it is such a magnificent view,” he says. So at age 24, Trivers went back to Harvard to study biology not knowing anything at all about animals. He even claims that fellow students showed him pictures of a rhinoceros and a hippopotamus and asked him which is which. “I had a 50-50 chance, and I still chose wrong.”

    Seeing life as conflict

    Nonetheless, Trivers turned out to be an immensely original thinker in biology. His strength has been to see conflict where other people see only harmony. In the baby growing in a womb, he saw a struggle for resources between mother and child. In the romantic love between a man and a woman, he saw a pair eternally at odds because of their differentialinvestment in their offspring. Whereas others see optimism and self-deception as a defensive strategy to stay sane and happy in a harsh world, he sees it as a psychological attack mechanism, “fooling yourself to better foolothers,” he says.

    Conflict has been a recurring theme not only in Trivers's work but also in his life. Stories of his reckless and aggressive side abound. He loves to use the words “fuck” and “motherfucker,” calling them quite useful, and he has gotten into public spats with many people over the years. Trivers can be brutally honest and plain rude, as many letters he has written to colleagues over the years testify. True to form, in his new book, Trivers is scathing of NASA and U.S. foreign policy, derides Turkey's denial of an Armenian genocide, and argues that the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany on European Jews was far from unique. “The notion of the holocaust has spurred the growth of an industry designed to extract long-ago costs of this event, which flow not to the camp survivors but to their distant cousins, usually nowhere near the camps, while serving to justify Israel's frequent attacks on its Arab neighbors,” he writes. Asked whether his discussion of Middle East politics might not turn off some people whom he might otherwise convince of his ideas, he just says, “Well, fuck 'em.”

    Period piece.

    Robert Trivers (left) with Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton (center) and another friend, Jay Friedheim (right), during Trivers's “fallow” years in California.


    Ironically, Trivers's first contribution to biology was on cooperation. Evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton had first proposed in the 1960s that helping a relative even at a cost to oneself could be advantageous in evolutionary terms because relatives share many of one's genes. Survivalin the long term boils down to being successful at passing on one's genes. Thus, in Hamilton's view, a gene that would make an animal sacrifice itself to save three of its siblings would outcompete other genes. Because each sibling has a 50% chance of carrying this gene for family love, it would in effect be sacrificing just one copy of itself to save 1.5 copies of itself, a smart choice. Similar logic applies to more distantly related relatives such as cousins, but more of them would have to be saved—the number dependent on their degrees of relatedness—to make the sacrifice worthwhile.

    Based on his own life experiences, Trivers realized that this nepotistic altruism could not be the whole story. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Kinship is obviously important, but friends can actually be more important,’ ” he says. In 1971, he published a paper describing the idea of reciprocal altruism. Helping a nonrelative could also be beneficial, Trivers argued, if it did not cost too much and if there was a likelihood that the two would meet again and the other person would then reciprocate. “Like all great ideas in science, in retrospect it seems intuitive and obvious, but at the time it was immensely original,” says Harvard biomathematician Martin Nowak. And the implications were stunning. “Reciprocal altruism led to cheating, that led to defense against cheating, and that led to the evolution of a sense of fairness, friendship, and trust,” Trivers says.

    Friends, lovers, and children

    Most biologists spend their lives studying ants, geese, or other animals and then extend their conclusions to humans later in life. Trivers tended to start with humans. “Some of his creativity is to look at himself to understand. So a lot of Robert's papers say a lot about himself,” says Harvard biologist David Haig, one of Trivers's closest friends. Indeed, Haig says, Trivers was predestined to write the paper on reciprocal altruism, because it is so close to how he himself behaves, being nice if someone is nice to him first. “Robert likes his reciprocal altruism up front,” he jokes.

    Then, Trivers turned from friends to lovers. Observing male pigeons hustling females while their own partners were caring for the eggs in the nest, but getting agitated as soon as another male approached its mate, Trivers felt reminded of human double standards in regard to sexual relationships. He spent 9 months collecting 70 relevant papers, which he read over the course of three intense days holed up in his apartment. “Then I wrote the paper, working 24/7 for a month,” he says.

    Trivers had figured out that the difference in parentalinvestment is the most important difference between the sexes, one from which allelse springs. While the human male contributes only a sperm that he can produce millions of, the female invests in a 9-month pregnancy producing a 3-kilogram baby. Naturally, Trivers argued, her strategy for choosing a partner had to be different from that of the male, leading to a difference in psychology. Females are pickier and focus on a male's genetic quality, status, and his willingness to invest in the offspring. Males compete for women and focus on physicalevidence of fertility, among other attributes.

    For nights after this insight, Trivers remembers dreaming of a long corridor with two animals of each kind in it. Then in response to an unknown signal, each pair separated, males heading for a door on one side, females heading for another door on the other. “It felt symbolic of what I had achieved,” he says.

    Having dissected friendship and love in quick succession, publishing key papers in 1971 and 1972, Trivers turned in 1974 to the relationship of parents and offspring. “There was all this nonsense at the time about parents teaching their children language and culture in a completely disinterested fashion and the child just being a vessel that they were filling,” he scoffs. In fact, there was a battle for resources that started with the fetus growing in the mother's body. “Later, the mother wants to cut down on the milk so she can have her next offspring, but the child wants to keep suckling, so there is weaning conflict,” he explains. Trivers termed this parent-offspring conflict.

    As with his other insights, he did not elaborate on the principle. “He is interested in the big picture rather than fussing around with the details,” says Haig, who adds that it is hard to find a similarly productive period in evolutionary theory. “Each of those papers founded a new field of research. It is incredible.”

    Disappearing act

    But fame and fortune didn't follow Trivers the way they favored others. Oxford's Richard Dawkins started his road to stardom with The Selfish Gene, a book greatly influenced by Trivers's ideas. (Look up Trivers in the index, and you will find him referenced on 30 pages, roughly a tenth of the book.) Trivers, meanwhile, felt underpaid at Harvard. The year was 1978. “I was earning only $14,000 a year then,” Trivers says. At the time, his wife was pregnant with twins. “I was teaching about reproductive success, and the university was not paying me enough to have any of my own,” he says. When Trivers applied for early tenure at Harvard, the university decided to delay the decision for 3 years. According to him, it was because of his bipolar disorder. “I had by then had three breakdowns, one as a faculty member,” he says.

    Many myths revolve around why Trivers did not get early tenure. Some think he got caught up in the war over sociobiology that had erupted on the campus after E. O. Wilson published his book with that title. Harvard scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin saw Trivers's and Wilson's work trying to explain human relationships in evolutionary terms as a theory with no scientific support. Sociobiology was aimed at defending the “status quo as an inevitable consequence of ‘human nature,’ ” they wrote in a letter to The New York Review of Books. “I have heard stories according to which Robert got done in by pretty much everyone here. They cannot all be true,” Haig says. “Well, I guess they could.”

    In the end, Trivers decided to take an offer from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He started teaching there in 1978, befriended Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, wrote a textbook on socialevolution that he says was ahead of its time but never sold well, and largely disappeared from view. Harvard anthropologist Irven DeVore calls it Trivers's “fallow” period.

    In the 1990s, Trivers resurfaced on the East Coast. He joined the faculty of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, partly to be closer to his children. And he started to turn toward conflict again, professionally as well as privately. Together with Austin Burt, a geneticist at Imperial College London, he began working on a book on selfish genetic elements. By then, Trivers's theories on parent-offspring conflict had been spectacularly confirmed by the discovery of imprinted genes, like Igf2, in which just one copy of a gene is active, not the usual two (Science, 25 September 1998, p. 1984). The Igf2 protein makes the fetus in the womb grow faster. The mother inactivates the gene in the egg to rein in growth, trying to sequester some of her resources for future pregnancies. But the father's copy is still going strong, making the fetus grow as much as it can.

    The book Genes in Conflict was published in 2006 to great academic acclaim. A year later, Trivers received the Crafoord Prize. One of biology's most prestigious prizes, it was established by the Swedish industrialist Holger Crafoord, who commercialized artificial kidneys, and presented to Trivers by the queen of Sweden. At the official banquet, Trivers gave a “shout-out” to everyone who had only one kidney “for making this award possible.”

    But the honor didn't mellow the man. Trivers is in the middle of a dispute with William Brown, now at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, with whom he published a paper on symmetry and dance in Nature in 2005. The paper appears to show that men and women with more symmetric bodies are also better dancers, with dancing thus being a possible indicator of genetic quality. But Trivers has accused Brown, who he says was in charge of the statistics, of preselecting the dancers and changing the values on some of the dancers' measures of symmetry to get that result. Trivers has even written a short book about it that he sends to whoever cites the paper. Brown will only say that Rutgers is investigating the matter, and Nature has no comment.

    Conflicts have not slowed Trivers down, however. At Rutgers, he resumed work on a long-gestating project, the book on self-deception that he had started writing with Huey Newton in the 1980s. (Its central hypothesis is that our ability to deceive ourselves evolved in order to deceive others.) Trivers calls Newton, who was shot and killed in 1989, a master in three out of four aspects of deception and self-deception: “He was a master at propagating deception. He was a master at seeing through your deception. He was a master at beating your self-deception out of you. And like all the rest of us, he fell down when it came to seeing through his own self-deception.” Trivers has dedicated the book to Newton.

    A difficult mind

    Much of Trivers's life has been overshadowed by his struggle with bipolar disorder. (It was his mentor, the famous biologist Ernst Mayr, who realized that a first diagnosis of schizophrenia was wrong.) “I've spent almost a year of my life locked up, usually in mental institutions, sometimes in police stations, sometimes both,” Trivers says. Only once, during his second breakdown, did he feel the disease actually spurred some creative thinking. That was in 1972 on a trip to East Africa. Trivers was losing sleep, thinking about parent-offspring conflict, when it suddenly occurred to him that the conflict extended far beyond fighting over milk. There was also a conflict over how the child should behave. “Because I share only half my genes with my brother, I am selected to transfer benefit to him only if that benefit is twice as big as the cost to me. But my mother is equally related to the two of us, so she wants to encourage me to help my brother whenever the benefit is greater than the cost. So there is real psychological conflict built into the parent-offspring relationship. That was a revelation to me.”

    But that insight had its cost. After returning to the United States, Trivers was hospitalized for 10 days before he could return to work. “After that, the breakdowns were uniformly bad,” he says.

    Trivers's life has not been easy, and he has sometimes made life hard for those around him. “Over the years, I've seen the periods of psychotic mania and depression. In those periods, he can become more difficult to deal with, and I've learned to weather that,” says Haig, who says Trivers is the most unusual scientist he knows. Nowak agrees: “Meeting Robert is never an everyday encounter.”

    Nor has Trivers ever been an everyday biologist. His latest theory on self-deception is sure to ruffle some feathers, and University of Chicago zoologist Jerry Coyne says the book suffers from a lack of tangible zoological examples. “But Trivers's forte has never been to show what has happened but what could happen,” he says. He calls Trivers “one of those thinkers whose importance rests on inspiring a generation of researchers.” There is a contradiction at the heart of his life and his work. Trivers might be a difficult character, and his life might have been rough at times, but his big ideas have always been simple and elegant.

    • Kai Kupferschmidt is a science writer in Berlin