News this Week

Science  13 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6189, pp. 1208

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  1. Random Sample

    Price hike for brain initiative

    Similarities (blue ovals) and differences (other colors) in brain structure and activity between two people.


    The price tag for the White House's project to map the human brain in action, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, just skyrocketed. The president allocated $100 million this year, spread over the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to kick-start BRAIN. Last week, an NIH-convened working group offered a more realistic appraisal of the funding needed: $4.5 billion over a decade for the agency's portion of the project. The report lays out a plan for NIH to invest $300 million to $500 million each year, beginning in fiscal year 2016, to develop new tools to monitor and map brain activity and structure. Getting the extra money “won't be fast, it won't be easy, and it won't be cheap,” NIH Director Francis Collins told reporters on 5 June. The first round of requests for NIH grant applications went out last fall; awardees will be announced in September.

    “To continue on the present course … is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the … perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.”

    National Research Council review of NASA's cash-strapped human spaceflight program

    Mummies, (virtually) unwrapped

    CT scan of the mummy of Tamut, a temple singer, dated to 900 B.C.E.


    Think if you've seen one mummy, you've seen them all? An exhibit at London's British Museum challenges that assumption by delving into the lives of eight mummified individuals—without removing a single bandage. In 200 years of studying the 120 mummies in its collection, museum scientists have never unwrapped one, for fear of damaging fragile human remains. Instead, the new exhibit, called Ancient Lives, uses videos from a CT scanner as it virtually slices through the bodies. The ancient eight, who lived along the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan, hailed from time periods ranging between 3500 B.C.E. and 700 C.E. and from many different walks of life. They include an ordinary man preserved in the desert sands; the daughter of a high-ranking priest from Thebes; a temple doorkeeper and a temple singer, both also from Thebes; and a medieval Christian woman with a tattoo of the Archangel Michael on her thigh. The exhibit, which opened last month, continues until 30 November.

    An ichthyosaur graveyard

    Skeleton of juvenile Platypterygius hauthali, an early Cretaceous ichthyosaur.


    Ten years ago, in the wake of a receding glacier in Torres del Paine National Park near the southern tip of Chile, scientists discovered a giant cache of fossils of ichthyosaurs—Mesozoic-era marine reptiles that were contemporaries with the dinosaurs. A German-Chilean research team led by geoscientist Wolfgang Stinnesbeck of Heidelberg University in Germany found 46 articulated, nearly complete specimens (including some soft tissues and embryos). The remains belong to four different species and date to the early Cretaceous, about 125 million years ago, the researchers reported last month in the Geological Society of America Bulletin. The scientists paint a rich picture of how the cache came to be: The ichthyosaurs, they suggest, lived at the edge of a deep sea that once separated Antarctica from Patagonia, hunting squid and fish in an underwater canyon. As the continent broke apart, underwater earthquakes and mudflows sucked the air-breathing ichthyosaurs deep into the ocean, burying them in sediment.

  2. Around the World

    Washington, D.C.
    Stem cell patent case thrown out
    Billund, Denmark
    Female scientists are awesome
    Venus Express taps the brakes
    Germany bows out of giant array

    Washington, D.C.

    Stem cell patent case thrown out

    A consumer advocacy group's attempt to invalidate a patent on embryonic stem cells held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation failed last week when an appeals court dismissed the case. Santa Monica, California–based Consumer Watchdog (CW) hoped to invalidate the patent, awarded in 2006, which it claims puts a burden on California's taxpayer-funded research. When the patent office rejected its petition last year, CW filed a case with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, arguing that the cells are un patentable “products of nature” and that their isolation was an “obvious” step (Science, 24 January, p. 359). But on 4 June, the court found that CW lacks legal standing to bring the case because it wasn't harmed by the patent. CW could appeal to the Supreme Court, but the patent is set to expire in 2015.

    Billund, Denmark

    Female scientists are awesome

    Ellen Kooijman's LEGO paleontologist.


    Your child could soon clamor for a LEGO play set featuring a trio of female scientists, thanks to geochemist Ellen Kooijman, whose “Research Institute” design—featuring a paleontologist, a chemist, and an astronomer—was approved by The Lego Group last week. A longtime LEGO enthusiast, Kooijman, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, says she “noticed two things about the available LEGO sets: a skewed male/female ratio and a stereotypical representation of the available female figures.” She designed a set intended to “make LEGO communities more diverse” and submitted it to the Denmark-based toy company's LEGO Ideas blog last year; the collection received 10,000 votes from the fan-based online community, earning it a review from LEGO. “Diversity is beneficial for science and technology”—and diversifying the roles of women in the toy market can help with that, Kooijman says. The completed set will be available in stores in August.


    Venus Express taps the brakes

    Artist's concept of Venus Express.


    A European spacecraft is about to take a dip into the sulfurous atmosphere of Venus, 8 years after it began orbiting the planet. Between 18 June and 11 July, the Paris-based European Space Agency's Venus Express will conduct an aerobraking campaign that brings the spacecraft into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. During the descent, the closest approach of the satellite's elliptical polar orbit has been shrunk from 250 kilometers above the planet's north pole to 130 kilometers—where the probe will feel the friction of the atmosphere. Along with scientific observations, the campaign is a way to learn about the effects of aerobraking, which is one way for a spacecraft to conserve fuel when entering orbit around a planet. If the probe survives the campaign, mission managers will use any remaining fuel to boost it to a higher orbit; it is then expected that the spacecraft will plunge to its doom by the end of the year.


    Germany bows out of giant array

    Shocking its partners, Germany has withdrawn from an international collaboration to build the €2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world's biggest radio telescope, stating that it will end its participation in June 2015. The announcement “came out of the blue,” says SKA Director General Philip Diamond. The 20-country project will create a single huge telescope from thousands of individual dishes and antennas across southern Africa and Australia, to test relativity and study galactic evolution. Germany's contribution has been small so far, at €3.8 million, but financial priorities appear to be the reason for its withdrawal. The country is in the process of building two large international facilities on its territory: the European XFEL x-ray laser facility and FAIR, an accelerator center for nuclear physics.

  3. Newsmakers

    Three Q's


    In 2001, physicist Neil Gershenfeld, who heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Center for Bits and Atoms in Cambridge, created a few digital fabrication workshops. That spawned an international network of “fab labs,” helping inspire the thriving maker movement—including the White House's first Maker Faire on 18 June. Gershenfeld spoke to Science in an interview edited for clarity.

    Q:What is digital fabrication?

    A:Digitizing materials rather than just designs. We're developing tabletop [micro]chip fab by assembling bricks of electronic materials, and a year ago in Science we showed how to make the world's highest performance, ultralight composites by reversibly linking loops of carbon fiber.

    Q:How might digital fabrication impact science beyond manufacturing?

    A:Bringing the campus to the student rather than the student to the campus. A fab lab can make other kinds of labs. Students in fab labs working with peers and mentors locally are connected globally. Rather than science limited by scarcity, it's a lot more accessible.

    Q:How does your MIT class “How to Make (Almost) Anything” illustrate that?

    A:We've expanded from on-campus teaching to hands-on teaching globally in the Fab Academy. Students create tools for molecular biology and electrical engineering. We're finding the kind of bright, inventive people who get attracted to a place like MIT in Arctic villages and shantytowns.

    Schmidt to head climate lab


    NASA has named climate modeler Gavin Schmidt, 46, to lead the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, an influential climate lab in New York City. “Schmidt has readily embraced the role of brash culture warrior … mixing it up with ‘deniers’ in the blogosphere,” says communications expert Matthew Nisbet of American University in Washington, D.C. Will Schmidt, who co-founded climate blog in 2004, follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, outspoken climatologist James Hansen? Schmidt says he'll steer clear of policy prescriptions—though, he says, scientists should differentiate between what science says “is” versus decisions they think society “ought” to make.