News this Week

Science  28 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6251, pp. 906

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  1. This week's section

    IS group destroys ancient temple

    Palmyra's Temple of Baalshamin (here in 2008) was destroyed by the IS group.


    Fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group have blown up the 2000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin (above) in the ancient trade route city of Palmyra, Syria. The IS group has held Palmyra since May, when its military commanders had promised to “destroy idols” but spare historic buildings (Science, 5 June, p. 1064). The temple, which mixed elements of local and Greco-Roman architecture, was among the best-preserved buildings in the old city and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. News of its destruction—which may have taken place as far back as July—came 1 week after IS group militants beheaded archaeologist and historian Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra's director of antiquities for 40 years. The researcher was accused of apostasy and representing Syria at “infidel” conferences. “The systemic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity, and history,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement on Monday. IS group fighters have destroyed other ruins across Syria and Iraq, including the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in March.

    Unexplained whale deaths in the Gulf of Alaska

    A dead fin whale calf in May (top). Bears feed on a fin whale carcass in June (bottom).


    The deaths of 30 large whales in the Gulf of Alaska represent an “unusual mortality event” (UME), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced last week. Such a designation triggers a focused investigation into the cause of the deaths, which now number more than three times the normal annual average, NOAA Fisheries lead marine mammal scientist Teri Rowles said at a press conference 20 August. It's the 61st UME since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was established in 1991; scientists have determined the cause of only 29 of those. The current event is the “most difficult” type, Rowles said, because most of the carcasses are floating in the ocean rather than washed up on beaches, making samples difficult to obtain. Furthermore, accessing the beached whales can be tricky, she said, because of “predator competition for samples”—from bears, for example. One possible explanation for the UME is biotoxins from harmful algal blooms, but there is now no conclusive evidence linking such blooms to the whale deaths. Other possible causes of death could include an infectious disease or human interactions.

    Ph.D. woes earn cinematic sequel


    Four years ago, former engineer Jorge Cham took his popular online comic Piled Higher and Deeper (or PHD) to the big screen. An ensemble of California Institute of Technology researchers, including Alexandra Lockwood (above, in PHD2), produced and starred in a movie version of the comic, which depicts the trials and tribulations of being a graduate student in the sciences. Next month, The PHD Movie 2: Still in Grad School hits theaters. Science and Cham exchanged emails about the upcoming sequel.


    Q:Why go through this insanity again?

    A:The main catalyst was the increasing number of fans who would approach me at events and ask if there was going to be a sequel. … The first movie was produced, directed and acted by mostly all grad students and academics. One of the themes of the second movie is collaboration … we brought in a professional director (Iram Parveen Bilal), crew, and also professional actors to up the game.

    Q:Does the sequel tackle any newly emerging career issues?

    A:I tried to incorporate a lot of the things that people are talking about these days: how hard it is to get funding, the lack of representation of women in academia, the limited number of academic jobs available, ethical boundaries in research, among others. I think mostly I tried to reflect the general feeling of self-assessment that I'm sensing from grad students and administrators about what is a Ph.D., and what is it for, and what it entails.

    Q:Does your sequel have more characters and explosions?

    A:There aren't any explosions, but … our cast list for this movie had over 50 characters!

    Around the world

    Mauna Kea, Hawaii

    More Hawaiian telescope arrests

    The construction of Hawaii's Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of Mauna Kea—which many Hawaiians consider to be sacred land—has drawn hundreds of protestors and national headlines (Science, 3 July, p. 8). But another telescope project on another sacred mountain is increasingly drawing protestors' ire. On 20 August, eight people—including a leader of the TMT protests—were arrested as they attempted to block construction of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope atop Haleakala volcano on Maui; another 20 had been arrested at the end of July. That project has been under construction since November 2012 and is about 80% complete.

    Burnaby, Canada

    Quantum chip doubles the qubits

    D-Wave's newest quantum processor breaks the “1000-qubit barrier,” with 1152 qubits.


    D-Wave Systems, which calls itself “the quantum computing company,” released a new processor this week. Ordinary computers flip bits that can be set to 0 or 1; quantum computers use qubits that can be set to 0, 1, or—thanks to quantum weirdness—0 and 1 simultaneously. In the D-Wave machine, each qubit is a tiny ring of superconductor in which electricity can run one way, the other, or both ways at once. The previous chip had 512 qubits; the new one has 1152. The processor works by finding the lowest energy state of the qubits as various interactions between them are ramped up to encode a problem to be solved. D-Wave also reported tests in which the improved chip outpaced ordinary computers. But the tests were all different versions of randomly assigned interactions between qubits. How well the chip handles realistic computing challenges such as search algorithms remains to be seen.

    Washington, D.C.

    ‘Female Viagra’ company bought

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its stamp of approval on 18 August to the first-ever sex drive enhancement drug for women, called Addyi. Just 2 days later, Valeant Pharmaceuticals announced their acquisition of Addyi and its former parent company Sprout Pharmaceuticals, for $1 billion. It's been a long road for Addyi: FDA rejected it twice on grounds of statistically insignificant effectiveness and potentially harmful side effects. But results from a reformatted, third clinical trial proved significant, and FDA waved the drug forward. Scientists have shown Addyi regulates neurotransmitters that are thought to kindle desire, but the exact mechanisms remain unclear. Along with its approval, FDA also mandated that follow-up trials for Addyi be conducted to better understand the potential side effects, especially among consumers of alcohol.


    Coca-Cola responds to critics

    Coca-Cola has come under fire for its support of a nonprofit organization that has used medical journals and social media to promote the message that exercise, not diet, is primarily to blame for America's obesity epidemic. According to a report in The New York Times earlier this month, the company donated $1.5 million last year to help start the Global Energy Balance Network, and provided another $4 million in funding to two of its founding members. Some scientists have suggested that the nonprofit's message is intended to deflect attention from research supporting links between sugary drinks and obesity and type 2 diabetes. The company has scrambled to respond; a statement by Coca-Cola Co. Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent published 19 August in The Wall Street Journal expressed disappointment that the company's actions “to fund scientific research and health and well-being programs have served only to create more confusion and mistrust,” and pledged more transparency in its research efforts.

    “I'd like for the last guinea worm to die before I do.”

    Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, at a press conference on his cancer diagnosis. Since its creation in 1986, the Carter Center has helped reduce guinea worm disease incidence from 3.6 million to 11 known cases globally.

    By the numbers

    1379—Minimum estimate of how many minerals on Earth remain undiscovered, based on an analysis of 4831 known minerals from 135,415 locations (American Mineralogist).

    64—Tally of papers withdrawn last week by Springer from 10 of its journals, after an internal investigation revealed fake peer-review reports linked to the articles.

    108—Age in years of the world's oldest message in a bottle, found last week on a North Sea island. The bottle was one of 1020 released between 1904 and 1906 by George Parker Bidder, former president of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, U.K.


    Early breast lesions overtreated?

    One of the biggest puzzles in cancer treatment is how to define and tackle early-stage disease. A provocative study published last week in JAMA Oncology suggests that for women with a very early form of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), doctors may be urging aggressive therapy that doesn't affect long-term mortality, regardless of treatment type (such as mastectomy or radiation). There are about 60,000 DCIS diagnoses each year in the United States, making up more than 20% of breast cancer diagnoses (Science, 28 March 2014, p. 1454). The new observational study of more than 108,000 women with DCIS found that their chance of dying from breast cancer was 1.1% after 10 years and 3.3% after 20 years—similar to the risk for an average woman for the same time frames. Still, some cases of DCIS—for example, in younger women and in African-Americans—are much higher risk.

    Self-medicating ants

    They may not keep it in a medicine cabinet, but ants dose themselves with hydrogen peroxide to stave off infection. Insects that live in dense social colonies like ants and bees are vulnerable to fungal diseases. Now, for the first time, scientists have observed ants self-medicating with hydrogen peroxide-laden food to prevent fungal infections. In a series of experiments, researchers showed that ants infected with a dangerous fungus had a higher survival rate if they were fed a solution spiked with hydrogen peroxide—and that the infected ants chose this diet, in seemingly careful dosages, over an innocuous solution laced with honey. In the wild, the animals could feed on aphids or decaying dead ants, which contain reactive chemicals similar to those in hydrogen peroxide to achieve the same effect, the researchers report in Evolution.