News this Week

Science  14 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6249, pp. 672

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  1. This week's section

    Ancient river deltas, hot springs beckon next Mars rover


    Researchers have narrowed the list of possible destinations for NASA's next Mars rover, due for launch in 2020. Last week they voted for eight sites with high scientific potential. Jezero Crater, a site that holds the remains of a river delta, was the top vote getter; Columbia Hills, a site previously explored by the defunct rover Spirit, came in second, because of silica deposits that indicate an ancient system of hot springs. The $1.5 billion rover is supposed to gather more than 30 rock samples and lay them on the ground in metal tubes; subsequent missions will pick them up and return them to Earth. Scientists want to collect igneous samples, which can help explain how Mars formed, as well as rocks that have the potential for preserving signs of life. The 2020 rover will land using a “sky crane” system similar to that of the Curiosity rover, and engineers will evaluate the relative hazards before a final site is chosen.

    Who will be the next MacGyver?


    In March, Hollywood bigwigs and engineering institutions dangled a tantalizing proposition before aspiring screenwriters: the chance to create a new TV series starring a female hero doing science. On 28 July, 12 finalists pitched their series ideas—part of a pilot script, along with concept art—to an audience of Hollywood producers, actors, and other insiders; five winners were chosen. Each will receive $5000 and a chance to work with Hollywood mentors to develop their series. The winning concepts ranged from spy action to high school comedy to historical. (Above is the concept art for Ada and the Machine, a fictionalized retelling of the story of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, who in 1832 wrote logarithms and created programs for mathematician Charles Babbage's new “calculating machines.”) We asked Science readers to vote on which of the five winners they prefer—and the results are in. The winner, with 33% of the vote, is an action series called Q Branch, about a woman who invents superspy gadgets.

    “It's a new and emerging subdiscipline … a sign of the times.”

    Archaeologist Martin Callanan of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim on “glacial archaeology,” a growing field as mountain climbers' remains, once buried in glaciers, are increasingly revealed by melting ice.

    Around the world

    Batavia, Illinois

    Neutrino experiment's first data

    The $278 million NO∨A experiment at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory here has collected only 8% of its expected data, but early results suggest it is on course to achieve its main goal of ranking mysterious particles called neutrinos by their weights. Nearly massless and barely interacting with other matter, neutrinos come in three “flavors”—electron, muon, and tau—that morph into one another. Physicists don't know whether there are two light ones and one heavy one (the so-called normal hierarchy) or the other way around (inverted hierarchy). NO∨A aims to find out by firing muon neutrinos 810 kilometers through Earth to a 14,000-tonne detector in Minnesota and spotting electron neutrinos emerging in the beam. The first year of data, yielding between six and 11 conversions, hints that the hierarchy is normal, NO∨A physicists reported last week. Another key type of experiment to test whether the neutrino is its own anti particle may be feasible only if the hierarchy is inverted.

    Suez Canal, Egypt

    Concerns over larger Suez Canal

    Scientists worry the Suez Canal's expansion will increase invasive species.


    An $8.5 billion expansion of the Suez Canal adds 35 kilometers of new channels, expanding ship capacity by 12% and decreasing wait time by 8 hours. But scientists say the expansion, which Egypt celebrated last week, is also playing “ecological Russian roulette” with the Mediterranean Sea because of the canal's increased likelihood of serving as a conduit for invasive species from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The Egyptian government has yet to carry out a thorough environmental risk assessment, they complain. Scientists would also like to see an effective monitoring, early detection, and rapid response system put in place.

    Los Angeles, California

    Alzheimer's data dispute heats up

    Each side in a bitter legal dispute between the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and the University of Southern California (USC) over control of data from a large, federally funded Alzheimer's study scored a victory last week. On 4 August, a California judge ordered USC, the new home of researcher Paul Aisen, to restore control of all Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS) electronic data and computer systems to UCSD, where Aisen had worked. On the same day, pharma ceutical company Eli Lilly announced that it is ending its contract with UCSD for one clinical drug trial within the network and moving it to USC. The court injunction can't stop the company from moving its own data to USC, says Russ Barton, chief operating officer for the Alzheimer's platform team at Lilly. But it could prevent computer systems developed at UCSD from being transferred, according to UCSD lawyer Dan Sharpe, who says the university wants to recover its costs.


    HHMI chief departing in 2016

    Biochemist Robert Tjian, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), announced that he will step down at the end of 2016 after nearly 8 years as president of the $18.6 billion research foundation in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The largest private funder of U.S. biomedical research, HHMI supports more than 330 investigators based at major U.S. universities. Tjian shored up HHMI support for early career scientists, created a 5-year award to help senior investigators phase out of the program, revamped college education programs, and launched a science documentary company. He also oversaw new collaborations with other foundations, including a plant science program and the start-up of eLife, an open access journal. Tjian, who turns 66 next month, plans to return to his HHMI-supported lab studying gene regulation at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Obama makes NSF, DOE picks

    Last week President Barack Obama nominated Richard Buckius to fill the job he's informally held since arriving at the National Science Foundation (NSF) last summer, asking the U.S. Senate to make him the agency's deputy director. Buckius, a mechanical engineer, worked under NSF Director France Córdova at Purdue University and has held senior management positions at NSF. Obama also tapped physicist Cherry Murray of Harvard University to head the Department of Energy's (DOE's) $5 billion Office of Science. Murray's nomination follows the U.S. Senate's failure to act on Obama's 2013 pick for the DOE post, physicist Marc Kastner, then of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Murray spent her early career at Bell Laboratories and was dean of Harvard's engineering school from 2009 to 2014.