News this Week

Science  06 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6090, pp. 18

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Ohi, Japan
    Japan Reboots Nuclear Power, But Eyes Renewables
    2 - London
    New Science Adviser for the U.K.
    3 - Washington, D.C.
    Supreme Court Upholds Health-Care Reforms
    4 - Washington, D.C.
    Climate Science Gets a Hug in U.S. Court Decision

    Ohi, Japan

    Japan Reboots Nuclear Power, But Eyes Renewables


    Japan's Kansai Electric Power Company powered up one of their nuclear reactors at its Ohi plant on 1 July, making it the first reactor to restart since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis.

    Scientists questioned the wisdom of the decision. For instance, faults crossing the site could produce stronger-than-anticipated shaking during an earthquake, warns seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi, professor emeritus at Kobe University in Japan.

    Reactors must be shut down periodically for maintenance, and by custom, local governments used to approve each restart. After the March 2011 tsunami led to massive radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, local opposition kept the shut reactors offline. But facing summer energy shortages, the national government stepped in and approved restarting two Ohi reactors.

    Last week, the national government also announced that it would heavily subsidize solar, wind, and geothermal power to reduce the country's reliance on nuclear power. Previously, considering renewables was practically impossible, says alternative energy advocate Tetsunari Iida. The Fukushima disaster “drastically changed Japan's nuclear energy policy,” he says.


    New Science Adviser for the U.K.



    The director of the Wellcome Trust, the world's wealthiest funder of biomedical research, has been appointed as the U.K. government's next chief scientific adviser. Mark Walport will replace John Beddington, the population biologist who has held the post since 2008, next April.

    Walport, a physician specializing in immunology who was a professor of medicine at Imperial College London before coming to Wellcome, will assume the role at a challenging time, with the U.K. science budget frozen for several years.

    University of Oxford neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, former head of the U.K. Medical Research Council, welcomes the appointment, saying in a statement: “Mark Walport is bright, efficient, and enormously knowledgeable about science, education, and innovation. But, equally important, he has great political acumen and robust independence. I can't think of anyone better prepared to make the case for the use of science in government and for the defence of the best of British science.”

    Washington, D.C.

    Supreme Court Upholds Health-Care Reforms


    There were surprises in the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last week that upheld the constitutionality of the health care reform bill: The decision was far narrower than the preliminary hoopla suggested it might be, and it was secured with the help of a Republican appointee to the court, Chief Justice John Roberts. He joined four liberal-leaning justices to validate the so-called “individual mandate” requiring every citizen to have or purchase health insurance as a tax. But the court rejected the argument that the mandate was equally justified as a federal regulation of commerce. Conservatives welcomed that part of the decision and said they would try to get Congress to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

    Health-care organizations for the most part expressed relief that the legality of PPACA was affirmed. And some PPACA-linked health programs that could have been scrapped—including the authority to regulate “biosimilar” drugs, a fund for preventive health work, and a fund for comparative effectiveness treatment research—survived intact. PPACA's scheme for funding Medicaid programs was rejected, however, and will have to be reconfigured.

    Washington, D.C.

    Climate Science Gets a Hug in U.S. Court Decision

    A U.S. federal appeals court on 26 June ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relied on sound science in deciding that greenhouse gases potentially “endangered” public health and welfare.

    In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel rejected the states' and industry groups' arguments that EPA had improperly “delegated” its scientific judgment on greenhouse gases by relying on climate change assessments developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies.

    “EPA simply … sought out and reviewed existing scientific evidence to determine whether a particular finding was warranted,” the judges wrote.

    The ruling has its roots in a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that EPA could regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act if the agency demonstrated that they threatened public health. In 2009, EPA issued rules limiting emissions from power plants, factories, and vehicles, which drew dozens of legal challenges that were consolidated into the current case.

  2. Random Sample


    The United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust is adding teeth to a requirement that grantees post their papers in a public database within 6 months of publication in a journal. Only 55% of eligible papers are now being deposited. To boost that rate, the Wellcome Trust will withhold final grant payments and new awards and renewals to researchers who fail to comply.

    Easy Does It


    A one-of-a-kind tree has been spared the ax at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami, Florida. Haldina cordifolia is native to China, India, and the Malaysian Peninsula, where it is harvested for its timber and its bark is used as an antiseptic. In 1937, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher named Walter Koelz collected a seedling in India; in 1940, it was planted at the then 2-year-old botanic garden. Today, the 23-meter-tall specimen is the only Haldina growing in the United States. When the botanic garden needed space to build a new building, they decided to move the tree rather than lose it. Arborists spent a year gradually pruning its roots. Then in June, two cranes hoisted the 12,700-kilogram tree about 30 meters to a new location. Nannette Zapata, the garden's chief operating officer, says so far the tree is doing fine.

    Piecing Together Carl Sagan


    Archivists at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., face a daunting task: painting a picture of noted astronomer Carl Sagan using 750,000 objects and documents he saved over the course of his life.

    The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, donated to the library by television producer and Sagan fan Seth MacFarlane, contains notes, doodles, and correspondence from the astronomer who brought the universe into people's living rooms. The sheer number and diversity of items will keep the archive team busy for a full year.

    This is a multimedia collection, says Leonard Bruno, project head and science manuscript historian at the library. “There are lots of photos, videotapes, audio cassettes, technical reports from his work with NASA, a quilt with mathematical equations on it, and even a dry erase board with the story board for Sagan's movie, Contact, Bruno says. The collection also includes the scientist's report cards, undergraduate notes, fan mail, and early research. Archivists must prepare each article separately, carefully examining, grouping, and placing them in storage containers that will protect them from the environment.

    This new collection takes its place alongside scientific manuscripts from figures such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and E. O. Wilson. The library plans to open Sagan's works to the public in November 2013.

    By the Numbers

    60,000 — Number of signatures gathered by the Libel Reform Campaign on a petition to amend U.K. libel laws to protect scientists, science writers, and others defending the “public interest.”

    76% — Percentage of patents from 10 patent-prolific U.S. universities with at least one foreign-born inventor, according to a 26 June study from the Partnership for a New American Economy.

    5 million — Number of babies born via fertility techniques, including in vitro fertilization, since the first “test tube” baby was born in 1978, according to the nonprofit International Committee Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies.


    Join us on Thursday, 12 July at 3 PM EST for a live chat with experts on the Higgs boson.

  3. Newsmakers

    Three Q's



    Cornell University is developing a slick new tech campus in New York City. Last week, it announced its first high-profile faculty hire: University of California, Los Angeles's (UCLA's) Deborah Estrin, a computer scientist known for her work in embedded network sensing and frequent presence at the top of tech leader lists.

    Q:Why are you joining CornellNYC Tech?

    Because of the incredible alignment of the conception of [CornellNYC Tech] with the work I do and how I like to do it. The campus is all about embedding research and education with the concept of its application, and the way I like to do my work is with very tight co-innovation with the application. When I read the proposal, it was just something I couldn't resist.

    Q:Why leave an established university like UCLA?

    It's the draw of joining something that's so like a start-up. [CornellNYC Tech] is connected to a great university but the whole concept of the campus is in line with innovation and entrepreneurship. It's not secondary to how it does its research.

    Q:What are you working on at the moment?

    My primary focus is mobile health (using mobile devices such as cell phones to collect health data). We look at innovative forms of data capture and use … to help tailor clinical interventions, particularly around chronic illnesses like depression, diabetes, and gastrointestinal illnesses, where the burden of care and understanding is on the individual.

    'Best Doughnut' Discoverer Wins Ramanujan Prize



    Fernando Codá Marques, a differential geometer at the National Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) in Rio de Janeiro, on 28 June was named the winner of the 2012 Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians from Developing Countries.

    In 2009, Marques used methods pioneered by Grigori Perelman (whose proof of the Poincaré conjecture was Science's Breakthrough of the Year in 2006) to show that any two positively curved spaces with identical topologies can be gradually deformed into one another without losing the positive curvature property. The result provides a useful tool for cosmologists studying the shape of the universe. This year, Marques and Andre Neves of Imperial College London proved the 47-year-old Willmore conjecture on the minimal bending energy for a torus. They showed that the optimal doughnut has a hole that is 17% as wide as the doughnut itself, and that its bending energy is lower than that of any cruller.

    “Fernando is also a fantastic lecturer and a wonderful person to discuss mathematics with,” says mathematician Robert Kusner of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I can't think of a more deserving recipient of the Ramanujan Prize.”

    They Said It

    “EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.”

    —The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in an opinion upholding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants (Science, 6 July, p. 18).

  4. Forest Management

    Turning Over a New Leaf in China's Forests

    1. Mara Hvistendahl

    A massive redistribution of land-use rights aims to boost afforestation and sustainable forestry.


    PINGZHANG, CHINA—In this impoverished mountain village of 1680 people, Qian Jinfa's house is like a palace. His clean courtyard home with its sanded wooden doors and freshly painted walls stands in contrast to the grim, single-room cement dwellings of his neighbors here in western China's Yunnan Province. The 42-year-old farmer—whose name consists of three characters meaning money or wealth—took advantage of reforms granting villagers across the nation tenure rights, or limited private use, of forests. Qian leased 5.3 hectares from neighbors—most of whom, like him, are members of the Yi minority group—and combined that with 1.3 hectares of his own land. He then felled about 300 of the tallest pine trees, plowing over $11,000 from timber sales into his home renovation. “Now that I have a certificate for my land, I can just go to the county seat and sell the trees,” he explains.

    Qian's get-rich-quick scheme might sound like a conservationist's nightmare. But for Su Yufang, deputy director of the Kunming Institute of Botany's Center for Mountain Ecosystem Studies, it is precisely the opposite. For decades, much of the forest surrounding Pingzhang, as in other parts of China, was collectively managed. In practice, that meant state-owned timber companies and local officials wielded control—and ecology suffered. To encourage stewardship, the provincial government in 2006 granted villagers the right to determine the type of forest-use rights they preferred. In Pingzhang, they voted to convert most of the village's forest to individual tenure, allowing households to use plots for 70 years. For Su, the key element in Qian's story is not that he cut down pines, but that he left many trees standing—and that he planted alder, which fixes nitrogen in the soil. Now Qian's main complaint is the recent appearance of squirrels, which eat walnuts on his patch of land. It doesn't concern Su: “That's a sign the forest is getting healthier,” he says.

    Last week's Rio+20 sustainable development conference in Brazil pledged to protect the world's forests by promoting secure land tenure. Many conservationists were disappointed that the nonbinding declaration left an opening for conversion of natural forests to industrial use and building infrastructure. But China has already implemented substantial tenure reforms, and no other country's efforts may prove more critical. In sheer numbers, China leads the world in new forest cover: It has added roughly 40 million hectares since the late 1970s, an area roughly the size of Paraguay. Much of that increase has come from plantations of fast-growing Chinese fir and eucalyptus, favored by loggers. Management of older and more diverse forests critical for ecosystem stability, meanwhile, is suffering as the economy booms, demand for timber explodes, and villagers flee to the cities for jobs.

    Tenure reforms aim to revitalize China's rural economy while throwing a lifeline to tattered forest ecosystems. The reforms allow villages to determine tenure rights in the roughly 60% of China's forestland that has been collectively owned for decades, affecting about 100 million hectares and some 400 million people. It is the largest action of its kind in recent history, according to a 2010 report from the Rights and Resources Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. New provisions extend farmers' use rights from 30 to 70 years and permit them to mortgage plots, transfer rights to corporations, and freely make decisions about planting and harvesting.

    “To allow the local villagers to think about what they want to do is a very big step forward,” says Heinrich Spiecker, director of the Institute for Forest Growth in Freiburg, Germany. Others caution that the reforms create the potential for forest fragmentation and complicate the task of sustainable management. “The ownership reform has generated a lot of debate,” notes John Innes, dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

    Early signs suggest that the reforms are boosting land productivity and forest cover. In 2011, researchers at Peking University's Environmental Economics Program in China surveyed nearly 300 villages across eight provinces, interviewing 10 to 20 households in each village. The researchers found that timber harvesting in village land managed by individuals had doubled, from an average of 70 cubic meters per village in 2000 to 160 cubic meters in 2010, according to the survey's lead investigator, Peking University forestry expert Xu Jintao. In the meantime, tree planting rose. “That's exactly what you want,” says Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative. “There is growing evidence that people will plant when their rights are secure.”

    Reclaiming the land

    Across the developing world, indigenous groups are pushing for collective forest tenure to gain more control over lands they historically occupied. China's approach to collective rights is a different story. Before Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, forestland in China was largely held by households. After the revolution, historical claims were ignored: “What Mao did was force people to farm collectively,” White says.

    China's forests suffered. By the late 1970s, large swaths had been stripped of timber. State-owned companies stepped in to manage the remnants, which gave villagers little incentive to look after the land. In Pingzhang, village leader Bi Guang says farmers stood by as the forest became barren, then grazed livestock on the depleted land. “What was everyone's was really no one's,” Su says.

    In the early 1980s, China began to loosen restrictions, dividing up agricultural communes and granting farmers land rights. Reform-minded officials in the State Forestry Administration, hoping to do the same with forestland, launched an early round of tenure reassessment. Resistance proved fierce. It wasn't just the timber industry, Xu says: “The wood-processing sector, the shipping sector, and the sales sector were all state-owned. If you revised forest tenure, the farmer could have sold timber to anyone. And the industry would have fallen apart.” And officials feared villagers might start a clear-cutting frenzy. After a few years of seesawing policies, the reforms were halted.

    By the late 1990s, villagers in Fujian, now China's largest timber-producing province, refused to cooperate in conservation efforts. “The system was collapsing,” Xu says. The turning point came in Fujian's Hongtian village, where farmers had stripped about one-third of its forest. In 1998, local leaders decided that the only way to protect what was left would be to empower the villagers.

    As Hongtian loosened controls, Guangyu Wang, then director of finance and economics in Fujian's forestry department, watched with interest. He had done a fellowship at the Pacific Northwest U.S. Forest Service; unlike its Chinese counterpart, it did not take orders from the timber industry. Wang and his colleagues “realized the government should separate forest management from the timber business,” recalls Wang, now an expert in sustainable forest management at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. That approach succeeded in Fujian: “More farmers put work into the land,” Wang says.

    Fujian's reforms later got support from central government officials, who had grown concerned about social instability in the countryside and hoped to promote self-sufficiency in timber. They also realized that healthier domestic forests would be good for China's carbon balance, Spiecker says.

    Conservation cash.

    Qian Jinfa funneled a portion of his timber revenue into tree planting.


    Tenure reforms appear to be strengthening forest stewardship. An earlier round of the Peking University survey found that in 2006 and 2007, villages that adopted tenure reform planted an average of 17 more hectares of forest than those that did not. Firewood collection also decreased.

    Yet the reforms are expected to create some problems. In dividing forests into smaller parcels, the new policy may complicate fire prevention and other management tasks. Sustainable forestry is “difficult to implement at very small scales,” Innes says. Others say that the government must repeal a quota that restricts logging in natural forests, put in place after Yangtze River basin floods in 1998. Although designed to protect forests, it has curbed enthusiasm for conservation. “If you don't give farmers rights over timber production, then you don't have a lot of incentive for farmers to plant trees,” Xu says. Another pressing issue is ensuring that land-tenure rights are protected. Local fiefdoms may brush them aside, leaving room for abuse. For instance, in Guangxi Autonomous Region, Stora Enso, a Finnish paper company, signed a contract with a county government. The county agreed to provide 40,000 hectares of forest by late 2010 that the company would convert to eucalyptus plantations for a paper mill, according to a study funded by the Rights and Resources Initiative and Rural Development Initiatives, a nonprofit in Eugene, Oregon. Local officials then bullied farmers out of their forest-use rights, the study alleges. In one village, armed police showed up with bulldozers, sparking a violent clash.

    The spice of life

    Leaving villagers to their own devices is fine, experts say, as long as they adopt sustainable forestry. That's a tall order. “For a farmer it is much easier to plant one species,” Spiecker says. Eucalyptus and Chinese fir are popular in part because villagers understand the market for their timber, even if they are not wise ecological choices. “That is really an obstacle,” Spiecker says. “The individual prefers to have a simple, monoculture forest.” To demonstrate the advantages of variation, researchers from the Center for Mountain Ecosystem Studies planted a multipurpose forest just up the road from Pingzhang in 2006. They peppered Chinese pine stands with native species such as candle birch (Betula luminifera); Michelia floribunda, a type of magnolia; and alder. Today the forest has a dense canopy. “You can tell the soil is better than what's over there,” Su says, gesturing to a preserved section of the original forest, which looks like a tree farm.

    Multipurpose forests are catching on at experimental stations in China (Science, 31 July 2009, p. 556). But convincing locals to carry the torch is a greater challenge. In Pingzhang, leaders discourage planting eucalyptus while encouraging investment in nontimber agroforestry species like walnut. One slogan says, “It's better to have lots of walnuts than lots of sons.”

    “The key word is education,” Spiecker says. Knowledge about sustainable forestry is “available worldwide,” he notes. “The question is how to get this information to the people.” Small forestry associations could help. But that will come in time, Spiecker says: “All of this has to develop. It cannot be started from scratch.”

  5. Profile: Jim Toomey

    LOL and a Touch of Science, Too

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Cartoonist Jim Toomey finds ways to sneak marine conservation and science into his popular comic strip.

    Group photo.

    Cartoonist Jim Toomey posed in 1998 with the characters from his comic strip, Sherman's Lagoon.


    ANNAPOLIS—“Science is hard to make funny,” admits cartoonist Jim Toomey. “And I don't want to be known as the guy with science predictably in the story line.”

    Despite those caveats, the former mechanical engineer has repeatedly used his popular comic strip, Sherman's Lagoon, to champion marine conservation. One favorite topic (see panels) is the Census of Marine Life, a decadal effort by scientists to catalog the diversity of life in the oceans. But Toomey, whose strip appears in 150 U.S. newspapers and 25 other papers around the world, has found a way to present the issue without violating the first rule of cartooning: Keep it light.

    “I like to dive into scientific themes often enough to keep the audience intrigued,” Toomey says. But the more science-oriented the content of the comic, he adds, “the more you whittle down your audience. I'd rather cast a wider net with a thinner scientific message.”

    For Toomey, humor comes from recognizing oneself in a cartoon character. And his strip offers readers a wide selection of mirrors: In addition to Sherman, an affable great white shark, the strip features a green sea turtle called Fillmore as his brainy sidekick, a scheming hermit crab, and a juvenile-delinquent fish.

    Scientists involved in the marine census are basking in the attention that Toomey has given it. “It was a great advertisement to the public at large that really didn't know much about the oceans,” recalls marine ecologist Patrick Halpin of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

    Cartoons offer some inherent advantages for scientists who are trying to reach the public. “Kids put a lot of stock in your strip,” says Stephan Pastis, creator of the comic Pearls Before Swine, whose characters have opined on quantum mechanics and colliding galaxies as part of Pastis's wry and offbeat exploration of the human condition. “You almost teach them how to read, and you are their first introduction to many new ideas.”


    The visual nature of comics shouldn't be understated, adds Scott McCloud, a cartoonist and author of several books about comics and their impact. Images can bypass our critical faculties and forge a pretty strong connection in our memories, he says.

    Toomey, 51, traces his love of the ocean—and his interest in sharks—to childhood summer vacations spent at Delaware's Rehoboth Beach, a popular tourist destination in the mid-Atlantic region. Fishers casting off a local pier would pull in all sorts of fish, including a few sharks. As he was growing up, the TV specials of marine explorer Jacques Cousteau convinced him that sharks had an undeserved reputation as villainous predators. Flying low over the crystal-clear waters of the Bahamas in a plane that his father piloted, a 12-year-old Toomey spotted a lone shark in a lagoon.

    Following the family tradition, Toomey was trained as a mechanical engineer. As an undergraduate student at Duke, he also drew political cartoons for the student newspaper. After college he moved to San Francisco and combined those talents by working at an exhibits company.

    After a few years, he decided to use his artistry to tell stories. Thinking back to that Bahamian bay, he created a comic strip with a bumbling great white shark at its center. His friends are all named after streets in San Francisco.

    He sent samples of his strips to the top 250 U.S. newspapers, and about 15 signed up. A year later he gave up his day job as an engineer and embarked on a fulltime career as a cartoonist. In addition to penning Sherman's Lagoon, Toomey has lent his talents to outreach programs by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.N. Environment Programme, and several conservation organizations. He also serves on the board of directors of the Sylvia Earle Alliance, a group that promotes the formation of marine sanctuaries.


    Although his characters have often advocated on behalf of scientific causes, Toomey doesn't let science cramp his artistry. Sherman never had his full set of fins, for example, and his sharply pointed nose has become softer over time to the point where it now resembles Snoopy's, the beagle made famous by Charles Schulz in Peanuts. Fillmore once had flippers but now has fingers and hands. His shell is more like a sweatshirt than a bony carapace. Hawthorne—besides being enormous for a hermit crab—no longer scuttles like a crab but stands up like a person. “My fish are people in fish costumes,” Toomey says.


    Researchers say they are cool with the distortions. “I don't mind that Sherman is a caricature of a real shark,” says marine biologist Demian Chapman of Stony Brook University in New York. “Anything that conveys information about the plight of sharks is something that's really important,” adds Chapman, who studies sharks.

    Toomey says it's a constant challenge to make Sherman lovable because a lot of endearing human foibles just don't apply to fish. So forget midriff bulge and receding hairlines. “It's a very narrow slice of the humor pie that you can play with,” he notes.

    Toomey is also constrained by the dimensions of the panels of the modern comic strip, which have gotten considerably smaller over time. Whales are too big to interact with Sherman, he points out, while corals are not only too small but also lack a mouth with which to talk. When he wanted to feature an octopus, whose mouths are underneath their bodies, Toomey used a thought cloud instead of a dialogue bubble to convey the creature's views.

    Although Pastis says Sherman provides “a natural fit” to explore marine conservation issues, Toomey has learned that readers don't want to be lectured. He once ran a series about the shark-fin trade in which Sherman gets caught, loses his fins, and is tossed back into the ocean to die. After St. Peter tells him that there are too many sharks trying to enter heaven, Sherman returns to Earth and struggles to change his diapers with his teeth. His friends come to the rescue, buying his fins from a Web site and sewing them back on. Although many readers voiced their approval of the series, Toomey says, some complained that the message was too serious for the comics.

    Sherman's adventures

    Toomey has taken his cast of characters all over the world. They've skied in the undersea mid-Atlantic Range, seen a 3-meter-wide jellyfish off the coast of Japan, and descended to the ocean's greatest depth in the Marianas Trench. “What I am trying to do is bring some of the ocean to the public that they might not be aware of,” Toomey says. “I'm fascinated with the oddballs.”

    The Census of Marine Life is a natural stage for oddballs. Halpin had met Toomey while the cartoonist was getting a master's degree in environmental management at Duke. “It was really interesting to have someone not only doing a cartoon on marine life but also dedicated enough to the field to get his graduate education in it,” Halpin says. After a colleague suggested recruiting artists to help get the word out about the census, Halpin e-mailed a request to Toomey. The cartoonist saw great potential in the idea.

    “I turned it into what the human census was because that's what people could instantly identify with,” Toomey says. As a result, Ernest the fish gets his census-taking kit in the mail and goes door-to-door looking for new critters (see panel). He comes across numerous Census of Marine Life finds, such as the yeti crab (Kiwa puravida), which grows bacteria on its claws to eat; the vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis); and a dumbo octopus (Grimpoteuthis sp.).

    Census scientists were thrilled. “Scientists can be stodgy and set in their ways and might look down on people doing cartoons,” Halpin says. “But they enjoyed seeing different avenues of communication [for their work].”

    Toomey has used his strip to convey a variety of marine science and conservation messages. A plastic bottle floating into the lagoon sends Sherman and his friends on an adventure, tracing the bottle's journey from Boise to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. When a conservation organization tagged a sea turtle in Cocos Island National Park off Costa Rica and named it Fillmore, the cartoon character took a trip there, and the strip directed readers to the Web site tracking the real Fillmore.

    His strip is not the first to tackle marine conservation, admits Toomey, citing the venerable Mark Trail as a forerunner. “But Sherman's Lagoon is probably the only comic strip that repeatedly revisits the issue.” At the same time, Toomey deliberately puts a spin on the science. “I take the scientific fact and give it a comic twist,” Toomey says.

    Take the fact that great white sharks have ampullae of Lorenzini, tiny electromagnetic receptors used to find prey. Toomey turns them into a sixth sense that enables Sherman to win bets on sporting events. Another strip shows Fillmore making a yearly pilgrimage to Ascension Island, where green sea turtles migrate to lay their eggs, for a swinging singles party.

    An upcoming series about the Sargasso Sea will include a fish with modified pectoral fins that let it climb up on Sargassum seaweed. The comic strip may also propose turning part of the Sargasso Sea into a marine sanctuary, a common theme for Toomey. But some marine topics, such as ocean acidification, are harder to fit into the 20 or 30 words available within a typical strip. “You might see one in a year” on that topic, he predicts.

    Anticipating the continued decline in newspaper readership, Toomey has begun writing and producing animated videos in hopes of mastering this potentially more potent medium. Videos and e-books, he says, “will probably be my ultimate future.”

  6. Retrodiagnoses

    Investigating the Ills Of Long-Dead Celebrities

    1. Sam Kean

    Vladimir Lenin's death was examined recently by a medical group that tries to decide how historical figures died; some historians disapprove of the practice.

    Strange seizures.

    Vladimir Lenin had convulsions before death, suggesting poison to some.


    BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Vladimir Lenin had a rough last few months. Although just 53 years old, by 1924 he'd become aphasic, unable to speak much more than monosyllables such as vot-vot (“here-here”). His right side had become virtually paralyzed, and he suffered convulsions. Moreover, he was paranoid about someone poisoning his food. Lenin had good reason to be paranoid: As his health dwindled, the shadow of Joseph Stalin was looming ever larger over the Soviet Union.

    Lenin died on 21 January 1924 after an apparent seizure. Doctors have rehashed the event for decades, proposing any number of causes: syphilis, strokes, heart disease, lead poisoning from the bullets that lodged in Lenin's body after an assassination attempt. Doctors even preserved Lenin's brain in a jar to study it, but no one has ever reached a firm diagnosis.

    Far from deterring interest, the murky circumstances of Lenin's death have made it popular among medical history sleuths. The most recent group to take it on was the 19th annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference (HCPC) here in May. The HCPC examines cases of historical celebrities who suffered from mysterious ailments, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Christopher Columbus, and King Herod. Diagnosing ancient emperors and explorers may seem an eccentric pursuit for doctors—the “patients” have long since died—but the HCPC is hardly alone. The quest to retrodiagnose dead celebrities has proved irresistible to doctors for over a century—although some historians wish that doctors would stop trying to revise history and let the dead rest in peace. Some also dismiss the work as unilluminating and note that DNA testing of the dead can cause distress among living descendents.

    Diagnosis hunter.

    Philip Mackowiak started the Baltimore study group.


    Philip Mackowiak, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, dreamed up the HCPC after reading about the wretched final days of Baltimore's own Edgar Allan Poe. Mackowiak had always loved the interactive nature of traditional clinicopathological conferences, in which participants get a case study a few weeks in advance, allowing them to sort through the patient's symptoms, arrive at a diagnosis on their own, and then compare their reasoning with an expert's. Mackowiak decided to hold an informal conference on Poe without telling anyone they were studying a man who died in 1849. The forum proved such a hit that Mackowiak made it an annual event.

    The HCPC's mystery-solving record, like that of historical retrodiagnoses in general, is mixed. In some cases, as with the ancient pharaoh Akhenaten (HCPC 2008), so few records have survived that achieving a firm diagnosis has proved impossible. More recent cases, such as civil rights leader Booker T. Washington (HCPC 2006), were noted successes. Some historians had long argued that Washington died in 1915 of syphilis, but in 2006 Mackowiak helped obtain hospital records for Washington that listed a negative Wasserman result, the standard test for syphilis, putting speculation to rest.

    Then there was Poe. After he died and his literary reputation soared, his doctor began a lucrative lecturing tour during which he denied what most people suspected—that Poe drank himself to death. Building on that doctor's descriptions of symptoms, a speaker at the 1995 HCPC concluded that Poe died not of alcoholism but of rabies. This juicy speculation—how fitting for Poe to die of something so lurid—got a lot of media attention (Science, 27 September 1996, p. 1805) and even appeared in a Final Jeopardy question in 1997.

    When Mackowiak revisited Poe's history for a book he was writing, however, he realized that Poe's doctor had exaggerated some symptoms and downplayed others, making the rabies diagnosis untenable. “There's a tendency” in historical medicine, Mackowiak says, “to want to give extraordinary people extraordinary diagnoses.” But in the end, he says, Poe probably did die of alcoholism.

    Medicine versus history

    This year's Lenin talk took place in an old-fashioned amphitheater with wooden seats. Busts of Plato, Zeus, and Homer oversaw the proceedings from a balcony.

    The first speaker, Harry Vinters, a pathologist and stroke expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical School, had never delved into historical medicine before. He first read Lenin's autopsy report as an appendix in a biography, and although the autopsy used strange terminology, Vinters found it thorough and well-done. (Autopsies started becoming common in the 1600s, but only became scientifically reliable around 1900, when doctors had better medical knowledge and started including not only what they found but also what they did not find.)

    Based on Lenin's symptoms and autopsy, Vinters became convinced that Lenin suffered multiple strokes. Vinters acknowledged in his talk that Lenin lacked some risk factors for strokes: He didn't drink and, unusually for a Russian radical, abhorred smoking. Moreover, he probably didn't have high blood pressure, because his kidneys looked normal and his heart wasn't enlarged.

    On the other hand, Lenin's risk was increased by his stressful lifestyle and a family history of vascular trouble. His father died, probably from a stroke, at age 54. And Lenin's cerebral arteries were so calcified after his death that, when struck with a tweezers, they rang like stone. Overall, given the aphasia, paralysis, and other symptoms, Vinters diagnosed ischemic infarction in Lenin, a death of brain tissue due to narrowing of the cerebral arteries.

    Early death.

    Frédéric Chopin died young of a lung disease; tuberculosis is a plausible but debated diagnosis.


    But did the infarction actually kill Lenin? The conference's other speaker, Lev Lurie, a historian in St. Petersburg, Russia, thinks not. By 1922, Lenin had already called Joseph Stalin the Communist Party's biggest menace, and Lenin planned to squeeze Stalin out. But as Lenin was slowed by ill health, Stalin was plotting to seize power. And poisoning Lenin, Lurie says, would have completed Stalin's coup. In support of this, Vinters noted that stroke victims normally don't suffer convulsions, as Lenin did. Virtually any poison can cause them.

    Beyond pinning down the cause of death, part of the fun of any retrospective diagnosis is the counterfactual speculation it provokes. Had Lenin not died, “Stalin easily could have been driven out of the party,” Mackowiak notes, and the Soviet Union would have evolved quite differently. (Vinters can attest to this personally: His grandparents fled from Latvia to North America only after Stalin seized Latvia in the mid-1940s.)

    Science historians tend to shun overt speculation, though, says Axel Karenberg, a medical historian at the University of Cologne in Germany. Karenberg calls himself a former “diagnosis hunter.” While a medical student, Karenberg wrote a thesis diagnosing a favorite pianist, Frédéric Chopin. He concluded that Chopin died of tuberculosis and not cystic fibrosis, as one popular theory has it. After switching careers to become a historian, though, Karenberg realized that doctors often fail to meet the best standards of evidence when they venture into historical territory. He began discouraging the practice.

    Lurid ending.

    A theory that Edgar Allan Poe died of rabies may not hold up, Mackowiak says.


    “What [doctors] usually do is read a biography and extract some passages dealing with medicine and come up with a [theoretical] diagnosis,” he says. They do something similar with living patients, he acknowledges, but with living patients, physicians can also follow up hunches with tests to prove diagnosis A and rule out diagnosis B—an important aspect of scientific medicine but impossible with dead celebrities. Moreover, doctors often draw on dubious sources to make historical diagnoses, such as deathbed accounts from laypeople or sources compiled hundreds of years after death. Karenberg also faults journal editors for accepting and publishing weak papers: “They would never publish a paper of this level of speculation on cancers or strokes,” he says.

    Privacy concern.

    Museums have declined to allow DNA tests on bloodstains left on Abraham Lincoln artifacts.


    Perhaps most important, Karenberg argues, retrodiagnoses often miss the point. Doctors might well pin a correct diagnosis on a famous dead person, he says, but a historian would look instead for “how the disease altered his life or mental state. The label is unimportant.” If retrodiagnoses teach us anything, Karenberg says, it's about the practice of science itself. Usually when scientists discover a new syndrome, people will start retrodiagnosing historical celebrities with it within about 10 years, he says. “What you're getting is a perfect mirror of the history of medicine and of what diagnoses came into use.”

    One modern tool that increasingly gets incorporated into retrodiagnoses is genetics: For instance, scientists recently proposed exhuming Chopin's heart (interred in a pillar in a Warsaw church) and testing for cystic fibrosis mutations. But although genetics can sometimes provide solid historical evidence—work published in 2010 on King Tut and other pharaohs shed needed light on his family dynasty—genetic testing of the dead can also introduce ethical quandaries because test results may affect the living as well, says Jordan Paradise, a law professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

    Paradise began studying genetic testing when she was a law student in Chicago advising the Chicago History Museum. It houses numerous artifacts stained with the blood of Abraham Lincoln (a 2007 HCPC subject). The museum had received requests to permit DNA testing of Lincoln's blood for certain genetic disorders. In the end, it turned them all down.

    That's partly because such tests destroy small bits of the artifacts but also because of privacy concerns. The dead cannot say no, and genetic tests can expose personal details that no one at the time could have known or understood. And if the person has descendents, DNA tests could reveal health problems or questions about paternity lurking in the genes, things living relatives may not want revealed.

    Paradise says that most of the HCPC's work—such as pinning down a diagnosis by parsing old autopsy reports—seems less troubling. “You're just looking back at someone else's account,” she notes, not “inserting yourself into that time.”

    No matter how inconclusive nailing down diagnoses is, Mackowiak says the study of medical history is worthwhile. It provides a fun escape for doctors, he says, and gives them perspective on science history. Above all, he notes, piecing together a retrodiagnosis “generates humility, which is essential for physicians.” As he explains, “Every generation thinks it's finally found answers to life's great mysteries, but [in retrodiagnosing people] you come to realize that future generations will be just as dismissive of our efforts.”