News this Week

Science  22 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6199, pp. 856

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  1. This Week's Section

    U.S. to fund unconventional fusion

    Glowing plasma in a polywell fusion reactor.


    ARPA-E, the U.S. government agency for funding innovative energy technologies, is preparing to launch a program to support alternative approaches to fusion energy that might steal a march on existing mainstream projects. The new funding stream, called Accelerating Low-cost Plasma Heating and Assembly, will target the largely untested middle ground between the two main standard approaches to fusion energy: tokamaks, which confine ionized gases called plasmas at low densities for long periods of time, and laser fusion, which squeezes plasmas to extremely high density for billionths of a second. The Department of Energy previously funded other moderate-density approaches through a program called High Energy Density Plasma (HEDP). But the ballooning cost of the U.S. contribution to the international ITER fusion reactor project in France put a squeeze on such experiments, and HEDP was zeroed out of the budget last October. ARPA-E gave researchers advance notice of the funding program on 11 August; a formal announcement could come within weeks.

    “Um … no. That's a prank.” Google software engineer in response to an anonymous e-mail tip on 12 August, claiming that Google was secretly planning to create an online platform that would allow scientists to publish their research for free and keep data and papers open access forever.

    The talkative turtles of the Amazon River

    Baby Amazonian turtles chirp to one another as they hatch.


    Once per dry season in Brazil, based on some unseen cue, female giant South American river turtles decide that it's time to leave the Amazon River to lay their eggs. Clambering ashore in single file, with impressive coordination they spread out across the beach to dig their sandy nests. The apparent secret to the threatened species' teamwork: good communication. After analyzing 220 hours of audio recordings of turtles in the wild, researchers found six different types of vocalization correlated with specific behaviors, such as gathering together, or waiting for hatchlings to enter the Amazon. Baby turtles also seem to talk to each other while hatching, possibly coordinating their first migration to the river, the research team reports in the latest issue of the quarterly journal Herpetologica. The study provides the first evidence that turtles use vocalizations to synchronize activities and rear young, the group says.

    By the Numbers

    581—Metric tons of precursor chemical for sarin gas removed from Syria and destroyed, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

    40%—Fraction of Americans who will develop type 2 diabetes at some point during their adult lives, according to a study in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.

    58—Millions of dollars spent by the National Institutes of Health in research funds for papers retracted due to scientific misconduct between 1992 and 2012—less than 1% of the agency's spending during that period, according to an analysis in eLife.

    A Brahe in your boudoir

    Portrait of astronomer Brahe by an unknown painter, circa 1620s.


    The landed gentry once kept prized scientific prints under lock and key in their private libraries. But the new print-on-demand service by the United Kingdom's Royal Society provides a visual feast of scientific history to anyone with a credit card. Accessorize your kitchen with a 1-meter-tall reproduction of an 1807 illustration of a turkey's gizzard by noted naturalist William Clift. Decorate your office with microscopic views of silk and taffeta drawn in 1665 by scientific pioneer Robert Hooke. Adorn your bedroom with a portrait of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe that includes his prosthetic nose. (He lost his in a duel.) From landmark botanical studies to paintings of famous scientific buildings, some 2500 images from the society's library and archives are available for order at

    Around the World

    Geneva, Switzerland

    WHO eyes Ebola survivors' serum

    Desperate to treat Ebola patients in West Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) is considering using blood from people who have recovered from the infection. Convalescent serum was first tried on an Ebola patient in 1976, after the first documented outbreak, and was used in eight patients in 1995. A U.S. health care worker in Liberia was treated with serum late last month. The approach is appealing because it wouldn't require regulatory approval, and there are many survivors who could supply blood. But researchers debate whether the treatment has really caused improvement. WHO has no official plans to administer the serum to ill people but says it will assess whether the approach is “safe and feasible.”

    Cambridge, U.K.

    Velvet worm ancestor revealed

    Fossil of Hallucigenia sparsa in the Burgess Shale.


    Hallucigenia sparsa, an extinct 3.5-centimeter-long worm discovered nearly 40 years ago as a fossil in the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies, has never quite fit into the evolutionary tree. Scientists have confused the ocean dweller's defensive dorsal spines with its legs and its tail with its head. This week, however, a study online in Nature identifies the 505-million-year-old creature as an ancestor of modern velvet worms, based on its spiny claws. Velvet worms use their spiny claws to navigate uneven terrain, as Hallucigenia might have on the sea floor.

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    Museum IDs skeleton in closet

    A 6500-year-old skeleton from the ancient city-state of Ur.


    An unmarked skeleton lurking for decades in storage at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has been identified. The 6500-year-old skeleton, of a man probably in his 50s who lived in the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Ur, was obtained during excavations led by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley from 1922 to 1934 in southern Iraq. Penn Museum archaeologists looking over Woolley's notes discovered to their surprise that he had saved two skeletons for the museum; his description of one of the skeletons exactly matched that of their mystery body. The museum now plans to digitally recreate the skeleton for a virtual display. Meanwhile, the second skeleton is still waiting to be found.

    Arlington, Virginia

    DARPA chikungunya challenge

    The U.S. Department of Defense has launched its first health-related challenge, focusing on a mosquito-borne virus of increasing concern in the Western hemisphere. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last week announced a $150,000 prize for the team whose model can best predict where and how chikungunya virus might spread in the Americas and the Caribbean over the next 6 months. Although rarely fatal, chikungunya causes fever, joint pain, headache, and rash, and no vaccine is available. The first locally acquired U.S. cases were reported last month in Florida. A better forecasting method might also be applicable to other infectious diseases.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    A DIY digital supercollider

    For particle-smashing fun, click here.


    Hunt the Higgs boson with Particle Clicker, a nerdily addictive game in which you manage a fictitious supercollider, gaining “data,” “reputation,” and “funding” points through furious clicking and measured choices. Researching certain particles provides rewards and physics lessons. (“The J/Ψ meson consists of a c and an anti-c quark.”) Meanwhile, you can also invest in postdocs (“here only to serve your needs”), an accelerator upgrade (“[T]hree times more data”), or beer (“Students will produce +2 data”). The game won a hackathon this month at CERN. “We wanted to make the content so that the people who live and work here at CERN get the jokes,” says Gábor Bíró, one of five current or former summer students who built the game.

    Washington, D.C.

    Indian students flock to U.S.

    For the second straight year, the number of Indian students applying to graduate programs at U.S. universities has skyrocketed, and the number of Chinese applicants has stagnated. Applications from Indian students to the 285 schools responding to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) soared by 33% this year, after a jump of 22% in 2013, while 1% fewer Chinese students applied, compounding a 3% drop in 2013. Offers of admission to Chinese students were flat for the first time in 8 years. “We started seeing these trends last year,” says CGS's Jeff Allum. “Now we are more and more convinced it's real and not just a blip.”


    Three Q's


    Those who bemoan a scientifically illiterate public are misdiagnosing society's problem, says German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin in his new book Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions. Gigerenzer talked with Science about why he says understanding risk is “the lifeblood of a democracy.”

    Q:What is “risk literacy”?

    A:Understanding scientific topics is one element, but also how to evaluate decisions amid uncertainty.

    Q:What's required for risk literacy, and why does it matter?

    A:You need both statistical reasoning and intuition. When I asked decision-makers in a number of major companies, I found that 50% of all decisions were gut decisions. But managers will not dare admit that. Instead, a manager will hire a consulting firm that provides a 200-page document and present the gut decision as fact-based. Billions are wasted in this way.

    Q:What can scientists do?

    A:Health researchers could use their results to train doctors to understand risk. Just as doctors need to understand what a positive screening test means, I have trained judges to understand uncertainty in DNA test results. But both medical schools and law schools don't teach that [well].