Random Samples

Science  10 Sep 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5690, pp. 1560

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  1. Betting on a Wave

    The betting agency Ladbrokes stands to lose a bundle if scientists detect gravitational waves in the next 6 years.

    Ladbrokes opened bets on this and four other scientific discoveries last month. After consulting experts, they set the odds of detecting gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime produced by violent events such as black hole collisions—by 2010 at 500 to 1 because “80% of the people I spoke to were dismissive” of the possibility, says spokesperson Warren Lush. But other scientists are optimistic, and a flood of bets had Lush slashing the odds to 100, 25, 6, and, finally, 3 to 1. Physicist James Hough of the University of Glasgow, for example, has placed the maximum Internet bet of £25 ($45) on the discovery, noting that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory in the United States is “now within a factor of 2 of its design sensitivity” and will be further upgraded by 2011—after which, he says, “detection is pretty well guaranteed.”

    Of the other developments for 2010, the lowest odds are on understanding the origin of cosmic rays (4:1), followed by finding the Higgs boson (6:1), creating a fusion power station (50:1), and finding “intelligent life” on Saturn's moon Titan (10,000:1).

  2. Reducing Bird Strikes

    Crashed dove imprint. CREDIT: ROBERT MCCAW

    Every year, ornithologists say many millions of birds smack into North American windows, making glass a major player in feathered fatalities. But biologist Daniel Klem Jr. of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, says he's found a way to tilt the odds in the birds' favor. In this month's Wilson Bulletin, Klem and colleagues report that tilting windows toward the ground, so that they reflect earth and not sky, can dramatically decrease bird strikes.

    Klem's group placed six windows along a forest edge near Allentown, randomly adjusting them to vertical or angled downward by 20° or 40°. Over 4 months there were 53 strikes, 12 fatal. Nearly 60% of the birds hit the vertical windows, but only 15% hit the 40°-angle panes.

    Although tilted panes might not take suburbia by storm, Sandy Isenstadt of Yale University School of Architecture predicts that some architects—particularly “deconstructivists” who reject traditional forms—will now have a “strong practical justification for [their] aesthetics of fragmentation.”

  3. Mummy


    A new reconstruction of Kennewick Man? No, this is Harwa, an Egyptian artisan who died 3000 years ago at about 45. His mummy resides in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy. A team including anthropologists and forensic scientists from the University of Turin, led by physician Federico Cesarani, reconstructed Harwa's visage with 3D data gained from Multidetector CT, the latest advance in computed tomography. Virtual unwrapping of the mummy provided data on the original shape of the artisan's dehydrated nose, ears, and lips and even revealed a mole on his left temple. Harwa made his appearance in this month's American Journal of Roentgenology.

  4. The Two Faces of Ginseng

    Ginseng can have opposing effects on the body: Research has shown that the famed herbal palliative can both promote and curb the growth of blood vessels. Now scientists say they have figured out the two key ingredients behind ginseng's ambiguous nature.

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology bioengineer Ram Sasisekharan and members of his lab, along with labs in England, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong, analyzed extracts from four ginseng varieties. Each had dramatically different levels of the herb's two most prevalent ingredients, steroid alcohols known as Rg1 and Rb1. In test tube studies, solutions high in Rg1 helped grow new blood vessels in human endothelial tissues, whereas solutions richer in Rb1 inhibited blood-vessel growth. The scientists got similar results from implanting sponges laden with Rg1 or Rb1 under the skin of mice, they report in the 7 September issue of Circulation.

    The potent molecules could lead to new drugs for promoting healing or retarding cancer growth, Sasisekharan says. Herbal medicine expert Adriane Fugh-Berman of the Georgetown University School of Medicine says the work points to the need for testing such preparations. Sasisekharan agrees, noting that the way ginseng extracts are processed can alter the ratio of the two molecules.

  5. Nanolander


    Structural biologists at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry in Moscow have made a tiny movie of a T4 virus attacking an E. coli bacterium. Using a cryo- electron microscope, Purdue's Michael G. Rossmann and colleagues put together images showing how the “baseplate” of the virus changes shape. Twelve legs touch down on the cell membrane, then the baseplate, composed of 16 types of protein molecules, opens like a flower to attach to the host. A paper on the work was published in the 20 August issue of Cell.

  6. Jobs

    German museum head. The creator of the world's smallest hole has been named director of one of Europe's largest science museums. Nanoscientist Wolfgang Heckl of Munich's Ludwig Maximilians University will leave his lab to take charge of the 101-year-old Deutsches Museum in Munich next month, succeeding Wolf Peter Fehlhammer.

    Heckl, 46, studied scanning probe microscopy with Nobel Prize winner Gerd Binnig. His lab's main focus has been self-assembly of organic molecules on surfaces, but the lab is perhaps best known for being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for drilling the world's smallest hole, a one-atom prick in a molybdenum disulfide surface, using scanning tunneling microscopy.

    One of Heckl's challenges will be to fill the rather larger hole in the museum's $36 million budget, which has received flat or decreasing government support in recent years. His media savvy—he was named Germany's best science communicator in 2002 —should serve him well for the task. “I'm not too proud to go knocking on doors” to potential museum donors, he told the German press last week. He told Science he'd like to build an open lab at the museum so visitors can observe and interact with researchers working with atomic force microscopes.

    Cheers Down Under. A Danish-born biochemist has become the new chief of the Australian Research Council. Next month Peter Høj, who has headed the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide since 1997, will succeed endocrinologist Vicki Sara, the council's inaugural CEO.

    Høj, 47, created “an excellent model for bringing science and industry together” at the wine institute, says environmental physiologist Snow Barlow, president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. He has also served on the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering, and Innovation Council.

    Høj, who moved to Australia in 1987 for a postdoctoral fellowship, says he hopes to boost national spending on research by “demonstrating the benefits to society from R&D investment.” Australia ranks in the lower half of industrialized countries in research spending as a percentage of its economy.

  7. Pioneers


    The diversity business. Daryl Chubin has spent decades working to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering. Now the former vice president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering and ex-federal science policy manager hopes to turn his knowledge into a business.

    Chubin, 57, heads a new center that will help U.S. universities trying to attract and retain a greater number of U.S. citizens—especially women and minorities—in S&E disciplines. The Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity is based at AAAS (which publishes Science) and funded for 3 years by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “I have no doubt that universities committed to expanding and diversifying their student body will be willing to pay for these services,” says Chubin, who's still working out a fee structure.

  8. Deaths


    Dr. Comet. Fred L. Whipple, a pioneer of modern planetary science, died 30 August in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 97.

    In the early 1950s, Whipple single-handedly shifted the paradigm of comet science by proposing that the core of every comet is composed of a ball of ice and dust rather than a loose cloud of sand. In 1986, the Giotto spacecraft—protected from flying comet debris by Whipple's 1946 invention, the meteor bumper—confirmed the “dirty snowball” theory over the “flying sandbank” by imaging comet Halley's icy nucleus during a close flyby.

    “He was an idea man,” says comet researcher Donald Yeomans of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. During a 65-year career spent at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, his work encompassed a half-dozen areas and creations including a device for slicing aluminum into strips that fooled German radar and the only observing network prepared to track Sputnik I. “He was a kind, respectful gentleman,” says Yeomans, “and such a nice guy.”

    Air collision. An aircraft accident investigator and systems safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, was one of two pilots killed on 28 August when their stunt planes collided during a rehearsal for a local air show.

    Robert Sweginnis, 64, was head of the university's aeronautical science department. The pilot of the second plane, 55-year-old Michael Corradi, was the chief flight instructor on campus. Neither plane carried any passengers.