News this Week

Science  20 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6224, pp. 808

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  1. This week's section

    Interstellar inspires science

    Swirling spacetime distorts star fields behind a black hole.


    For the 2014 blockbuster Interstellar, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena worked closely with London-based special effects company Double Negative to ensure that the wormhole and black hole shown were as realistic as possible. Now, their efforts have spawned an academic paper in Classical and Quantum Gravity. Using physics equations provided by Thorne, the company's computers mapped the paths of millions of rays of light through the warped spacetime caused by a fictional black hole—and they unearthed some unexpected physics, such as that an observer close to a rapidly spinning black hole would see more than a dozen images of individual stars just outside one edge of the black hole's “shadow.” These multiple images are caused by the spinning mass dragging spacetime into a whirlpool that bends the light rays around itself. The multiple-image effect was observed only on the side of the black hole where spacetime is being dragged toward the observer, which the team concluded was because some light was being “flung” outward.

    Luna moth's tails fool bat sonar

    The fluttering tails of the luna moth confuse hungry bats.


    The green wings of the luna moth, with their elegant, long tails, aren't just about style—they can also confound hungry bats. The fluttering tails appear to create an acoustic signal that attracts echolocating bats, causing the predators to zero in on the wings rather than the moth's more vital body parts, researchers report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists pinned down the tails' lifesaving role by taking 162 moths and plucking the tails off 75 of them. They used fishing line to tether two moths—one with tails, the other without—to the ceiling of a darkened room. Then, they let loose a big brown bat. The bats caught 81% of the tailless moths, but just 35% of those with fully intact wings—and high-speed cameras revealed that in more than half of the attacks on moths with tails, the bats went after the tails, often missing the body.


    The AAAS (which publishes Science) annual meeting, held in San Jose, California, from 12 to 16 February, drew thousands of participants, including scientists, journalists, and visitors to Family Science Days activities. Here are some highlights from the meeting; for more AAAS coverage, including reports from sessions, live chats, and responses to “What message would you send into space?” visit

    A dissection of dissection

    Vertical cuts to a skull were rare; this 19th century dissection, from the University of Cambridge's collection, was likely a teaching tool.


    Human dissection: It's better than it used to be. That's the conclusion Jenna Dittmar of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom came to after studying skeletons excavated from a hospital graveyard in England, as well as those stored by universities and medical museums. Using scanning electron microscopes to examine the cut marks medical students and other dissectors left behind on the bones of their subjects, Dittmar tracked the change in dissection practices from 1650 to 1900. Before 1700, surgical instruments were more like “woodworking tools,” but over time, the saws got thinner and the cuts—and techniques—more refined. For example, early dissectors simply sawed off the top of the skull horizontally, which often damaged the brain, but beginning in the late 1880s, dissectors began cutting a delicate arc across the back of the skull, a technique that protected the fragile organ.

    Spotted from space: Lost cities

    Satellite images reveal a fortified citadel at the Garamantian site Qasr ash-Sharraba.


    Remote sensing technology is revealing traces of past civilizations that have been hiding in plain sight. “Although [the Amazon rainforest and the Sahara desert] seem so different, a lot of the questions are actually very similar,” says David Mattingly, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. Both are inhospitable environments that were thought to be devoid of large-scale human settlements. But, Mattingly says, satellite images covering 2500 square kilometers of southern Libya have revealed with “stunning” detail 158 major settlements of the Garamantes, a people who began building cities, forts, and farmland in the region around 1000 B.C.E. Satellites are less helpful at peering through the thick vegetation of the Amazon rainforest, says José Iriarte, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, so he opts for drones outfitted with LiDAR to map the ground through the trees and sensors to analyze the distribution of plants, which may reveal ancient farming sites.

    What's your Twitter dialect?

    It's legit: The language you use on Twitter reflects your geography. By analyzing roughly 100 million tweets and accompanying GPS data, computational linguist Jacob Eisenstein of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta has pieced together and mapped geographical patterns of Twitter slang. A few highlights: The plural pronoun “yinz” (as in, “I'll see yinz later”) and the adjective “hella” (“That movie was hella long”) occur in tight clumps around Pittsburgh and northern California, respectively. “Legit” pops up along the Northeast Corridor and in major cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. If you use “frfr” (for real for real), you're probably tweeting from the American South. How region-specific your tweets are may depend on your intended audience, Eisenstein notes: Tweets with a hashtag—a way to reach more readers—are less likely to have “local variables” than those directed at a specific user. Frfr.

    A map of silence

    Using 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring from places as remote as Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and as urban as New York City, scientists have created a color-coded map of noise levels across the country on an average summer day. Deep blue regions, such as Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, have background noise levels lower than 20 decibels—a silence likely as deep as before European colonization, researchers say, and orders of magnitude quieter than most cities, where noise levels average 50 to 60 decibels. The National Park Service is using the map to identify places where humanmade noises are affecting wildlife such as bats and owls, whose ears are up to 20 decibels more sensitive than human ears. The noises drown out the rustles of the insects and rodents they hunt.

    “Arctic apples … are likely the most tested apples on the planet.”

    Statement by Okanagan Specialty Fruits about its genetically modified “nonbrowning” apples, approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on 13 February.

    A telescopic contact lens

    Tiny aluminum telescopes in contact lenses could someday improve vision.


    Wink your right eye to zoom in; wink your left eye to zoom out. Those are the operating instructions for a vision-enhancing system that could be a workaround for certain kinds of vision loss—or a futuristic upgrade to human sight. A new prototype of the technology relies on contact lenses containing tiny aluminum telescopes that interact with a pair of eyeglasses to toggle between normal and 3x magnification. The contact lens telescopes were developed with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding as superthin cameras for aerial drones, then reimagined as an aid for age-related macular degeneration—the loss of light receptors on the inner surface of the eye that blurs the center of the visual field. Now, optical engineer Eric Tremblay of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne has revealed the latest tweak: zoom-controlling glasses that receive signals from reflectors in the contacts. When a user covers one of the reflectors by winking, the glasses change polarization. Two kinds of polarized light take two different paths through the contact lenses, activating the normal or magnified view. The next major hurdle for the developers: making the lenses breathable for long-term wear.



    Should we send messages to alien worlds?

    Advocates in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) argue yes, but others urge caution ( Science asked attendees: What message would you send?

    “I would want to ask an extraterrestrial: What do you care about? What makes you happy?”

    Douglas Vakoch, the SETI Institute's director of interstellar message composition

    “On behalf of the linguists of Earth: Call us! Let's talk.”

    Elly Zimmer, University of Arizona Ph.D. student in linguistics

    “Please be very careful in how you contact us, or if you do.”

    Paul Farber, Oregon State University science historian

    “We have a beautiful planet and a lot we can teach you.”

    Linda Spilker, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Cassini project scientist

    “How's the food?”

    Aidan Cohen, student presenter and future rocket scientist

    Around the world


    Fracking moves ahead in U.K.

    Parliament has approved a controversial bill that will facilitate the use of hydraulic fracturing technologies to recover shale gas in England and Wales. Last month politicians in the Labour Party added more than a dozen environmental constraints, such as prohibiting drilling beneath national parks, protected groundwater sources, and sites of special scientific interest. But last week lawmakers removed the safeguards, including obligating companies to conduct environmental impact assessments at drill sites. The new law will “boost our energy security … and help us tackle climate change, all within one of the most robust regulatory regimes in the world,” several agencies said in a joint statement. The law does not apply to Scotland, which has a fracking moratorium. Environmental safeguards will be clarified in a separate bill in July.

    Tushar Mountains, Utah

    Comeback wolf confirmed dead

    New genetic analyses reveal that the endangered female gray wolf seen on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in fall 2014 is the same animal killed by an authorized coyote bounty hunter in Utah later that year. DNA from the dead wolf 's tissue samples matched DNA from wolf scat collected near the canyon in November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on 11 February. The wolf, identified by FWS as 914F, was given a radio collar near Cody, Wyoming, on 8 January 2014, but by the time she reached Arizona it had stopped working. She was the first wolf in northern Arizona since the animals were exterminated there 70 years ago.

    A wolf hailed as a conservation comeback was shot by a hunter.



    STAP scandal punishments

    RIKEN, Japan's network of national laboratories, on 10 February announced punishments for staff involved in a stem cell scandal (Science, 20 June 2014, p. 1324). It centered on two 2014 papers in Nature, since retracted, that described a cell creation technique called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Masatoshi Takeichi, former head of RIKEN's Center for Developmental Biology, and Hitoshi Niwa, a co-author of the papers, received reprimands; Takeichi will also voluntarily return some salary. Officials said they would have suspended Teruhiko Wakayama, a co-author who left RIKEN before publication; they revoked his appointment as an associate. RIKEN had already found lead author Haruko Obokata, who has resigned, guilty of misconduct. RIKEN is still investigating whether it should return related research money to funders and withdraw pending STAP patent applications.

    Washington, D.C.

    Weather sat gap still looms

    Launch delays for the first of two planned next-generation weather satellites could lead to a datasupply gap for the United States that will last anywhere from 3 to 15 months, federal officials said last week. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to launch a new satellite in March 2017, but a report last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—Congress's investigative arm—suggested that NOAA's most recent projection of a 3-month coverage gap is likely optimistic. Cost overruns, new launch delays, and the uncertain life spans of aging satellites (in part due to possible collisions with space debris) all mean the gap could grow, says GAO, which since 2013 has said the government faces a “high risk” of a gap.


    Lawsuit over retractions

    Arguing his university has cleared him of misconduct, Brazil-based researcher Mario Saad filed a lawsuit against the American Diabetes Association on 5 February. He demanded that the association, which publishes the journal Diabetes, remove expressions of concern posted on four of his papers and be prevented from retracting them. According to the suit, the journal informed Saad in March 2014 that two of his articles “appear to contain instances of image manipulation and duplication.” Saad's employer, the State University of Campinas in São Paulo, investigated and, the lawsuit says, “found no evidence of dishonesty,” concluding that although “mistakes had occurred in the treatment of the digital images,” they did not compromise the papers' conclusions. But on 2 February the journal attached an expression of concern to the four papers. This, and the potential retractions, the lawsuit argues, “have and will continue to severely damage Dr. Saad's professional reputation.” Saad is seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial.

    Three Q's

    The U.S. National Academies has taken on a thorny issue, launching a study of federal regulations affecting research universities. Academics hope it will pave the way toward easing the burden on scientists. The panel's chair, University of Texas, Austin, President Emeritus Larry Faulkner, discussed the issue at the group's first meeting last week in Washington, D.C.

    Q:Why did you sign on?

    A:It's a congressionally chartered effort … and unless you have Congress or the White House involved, your opportunity to influence the overall picture is limited.

    Q:How bad is the situation?

    A:My sense is that there's vastly more demands for accountability than when I was a researcher. But it would be a mistake to think that the only purpose of this study is to lighten the regulatory burden on universities. We would like to see regulations made sensible enough that investigators have more time to do research.

    Q:There have been many such studies. What can you add?

    A:Yes, a lot of useful work has been done. But we've also been asked to create a framework that provides the intellectual structure against which regulations, old and new, would be tested. If we can succeed, I think it would be of great value.

    In 2006, South Africa's future president Jacob Zuma said that he showered after sex to avoid HIV. The statement highlighted the country's struggle to accurately communicate science—a situation that Thandi Mgwebi, executive director of research chairs and centers of excellence at the South African National Research Foundation, is working to improve. After participating in a meeting panel on improving access to scientific expertise in African countries, Mgwebi chatted with Science.

    Q:What's the disconnect between science and the public?

    A:We don't have platforms [for communicating science] that are institutionalized. The [scientists] are there and they've got the will, but they don't have the expertise to do it. And then you get false stories [like Zuma's statement]. Those kinds of stories are because of lack of communication and teaching. We don't know why he said it, but it wasn't a joke.

    Q:What was the impact of that?

    A:Nobody has quantified it. From the learned community of course it's laughable, but you don't know what's happening in a village. It's coming from a head of state. Obviously there must be some bad impact.

    Q:How is [this problem] dif erent in South Africa than in the United States?

    A:I think the issues are the same, but the scale is dif erent. Indigenous knowledge systems are very important in Africa. With the prevention of HIV, there were a lot of education initiatives, and most of them were aligned with what people believe. You have to look at the belief system, and not just come with your hardcore facts about science.