# News this Week

Science  20 May 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6032, pp. 900
1. # Around the World

1 - Berlin
Ethics Commission Calls For Swift Nuclear Phaseout
More of New Meningitis Vaccine for Africa
3 - Washington, D.C.
NIH Grant Applicants Face Low Odds
4 - Melbourne, Australia
Synchrotron Funding Up in the Air
5 - London
Astronomy, Particle Physics Cuts Decried
6 - Paris
Goodbye, Rinderpest

## Berlin

### Ethics Commission Calls For Swift Nuclear Phaseout

Germany should phase out nuclear power by 2021, according to a leaked draft of a report from the Ethics Commission on Safe Energy Supply created by Chancellor Angela Merkel in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. The commission, chaired by two scientists and comprising representatives from industry, research, politics, and religion, recommends permanently shutting down the country's seven oldest nuclear reactors, followed by “a complete withdrawal from nuclear energy” within 10 years or less.

The seven reactors were taken off line shortly after problems started at Fukushima; the commission says this demonstrates that the 8.5 gigawatts they produce can be obtained elsewhere. Renewable energy, natural gas, and coal can take care of the rest without increasing Germany's carbon dioxide emissions or shaking the economy, the report says.

A law enacted in 2002 would have closed all of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants by 2023, but Merkel's coalition passed a new law last autumn that delayed that phaseout by more than a decade. The leaked report could change significantly before the official version is released at the end of the month. In any case, it is expected to strongly influence the direction the government takes.

http://scim.ag/german-nuclear

## Melbourne, Australia

### Synchrotron Funding Up in the Air

When the Australian government released its new budget proposal last week, it didn't contain the drastic cuts many scientists had feared. But anxiety is still rippling through users of the Australian Synchrotron. Neither the federal government nor the Victoria state government, which also released budget plans recently, addressed how the world-class facility will be funded beyond June 2012, when its original 5-year financial plan ends. The bulk of the facility's funding comes from the two governments. Andrew Peele, a physicist at La Trobe University in Victoria who has been head of science at the synchrotron since late last year, says the facility's leadership had applied for additional government funding to expand the facility. He's hopeful a decision will be made soon. Long-term funding “is always an issue for major research institutions, [and] there are a number of alternatives,” he says. http://scim.ag/oz-synch

## London

### Astronomy, Particle Physics Cuts Decried

A U.K. parliamentary committee has warned that budget cuts planned for astronomy and particle physics will jeopardize Britain's ability to stay at the forefront of those disciplines.

Although science in general was relatively well protected from severe government spending cuts announced last year, astronomy and particle physics took a big hit. A report released last week by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee says the two fields will have 50% less funding in 2014–15 than they did in 2005.

The committee was particularly scathing about the decision to withdraw support from all ground-based optical and infrared telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere, noting that British astronomers will lose access to cutting-edge instruments and the country's reputation as an international partner could suffer. “The idea that subjects like astronomy and particle physics do not provide immediate economic returns and therefore can be sacrificed at the altar of cutbacks is nonsense,” says committee chair Andrew Miller. Welcome words for Britain's big-science supporters, but the impact will be limited: the committee has no direct legislative power. http://scim.ag/UKastro

## Paris

### Goodbye, Rinderpest

Animal health officials are about to report that rinderpest, which has decimated cattle herds for millennia, has been eradicated worldwide after a 17-year vaccination effort. On 25 May in Paris, the World Organization for Animal Health will certify the last eight countries, which include Micronesia, Sri Lanka, and Kazakhstan, as free of the disease. Then on 28 June in Rome, the governing body of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization is expected to issue a declaration of global eradication. Rinderpest, a viral disease, was once endemic across Eurasia and Africa with periodic outbreaks killing calves and devastating herders. The virus was last detected in 2001 in Kenya. It will be the first animal disease to be eradicated and only the second disease in human history after smallpox.

2. # Random Sample

## They Said It

“Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. Each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks.”

—The National Research Council Committee on America's Climate Choices, in its fifth and final report to the United States Congress on climate change.

## Spacetime Souvenir

On 26 May 1933, a wild-haired German physics professor stepped off a ferry from Oostende, Belgium, and handed this landing card to border authorities in Dover, England. This year, museum curators on an artifact-hunting trip to a border agency office near Heathrow Airport found the card, signed by Albert Einstein, among the personal collections of immigration officers.

Einstein “already had his Nobel Prize,” so the border agent who stamped it “might have thought, ‘Ooh, I'll keep this,’” says Lucy Gardner, assistant curator at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, where the card went on display 10 May. On the card, Einstein records his nationality as Swiss; he had left Germany, where the Nazis had denounced his theory of relativity and burned his books, in 1932. He lists Oxford, where he would give a series of lectures, as his expected address. Later that year, Einstein immigrated to the United States, never to return to Germany.

## The View From Here

Ever wonder what the night sky would look like if all the stars grew thousands of times brighter? Go see for yourself at www.skysurvey.org.

The Photopic Sky Survey is the labor of love of amateur astronomer Nick Risinger, who quit his job as a marketing director in Seattle, Washington, and spent a year lugging sensitive cameras almost 100,000 kilometers around the United States and to South Africa. He then stitched together the 37,440 images to create the largest ever true-color sky survey—a zoomable, 360° panorama of the universe from Earth's point of view.

“Its main value is as an educational tool,” Risinger says. But Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, says astronomers could use the survey's 5000 megapixels to identify objects to observe. “The human eye is very good at spotting things that are unusual in shape or color,” he says. “And of course, it's very pretty.”

## By the Numbers

<10 — Stars in the constellation Orion visible to 59% of 2188 participants in a U.K. assessment of light pollution. Just 1% of star watchers had skies dark enough to make out more than 30 stars.

$796 billion — The economic impact of the Human Genome Project on the U.S. economy over the past decade, according to a report commissioned by the Life Technologies Foundation. The Human Genome Project cost the U.S. government$3.8 billion.

## Modern prognostication

But earthquake forecasting “has hardly stood still over 20-plus years,” Ellsworth notes. Scientists now have much more information about faults both major and minor; just as significant, they have developed a much keener sense of how to proceed when data are lacking. “To do seismic hazard right, we have to acknowledge we don't know how Earth works,” says seismologist Edward Field of USGS in Golden, Colorado, who is leading the next official forecast for California, due in 2012.

In the past, Field notes, official forecasters would take their best guess at how a fault works—for example, what length of fault will break and how fast the fault slips over geologic time—and feed it into a single forecast model, which would spit out a probability that a particular quake would occur in the next 30 years. WGCEP followed that approach for its 1988 and 1995 forecasts.

In the late 1990s, however, it became clear that a single model wasn't enough. “There's no agreement on how to build one model,” Field says, “so we have to build more than one to allow for the range of possible models.” Forecasters merged 480 different models for the 2007 California forecast to produce a single forecast with more clearly defined uncertainties. They aren't done yet. Current models cannot produce some sorts of quakes that have actually occurred, Field says, including the sorts that struck New Zealand and Japan.

Those two quakes are “perfect examples of what we need to fix,” Field says. In New Zealand, last September's magnitude-7.1 Darfield quake struck a previously unknown fault that probably hadn't ruptured for the past 15,000 years. Scientists were aware that a quake of that size was possible in the region. New Zealand's official forecast estimated that “background” seismicity would give rise somewhere to one about once in 10,000 years. The New Zealand forecast “is doing its job,” says seismologist Mark Stirling of New Zealand's GNS Science in Lower Hutt—but in this case, the information was too vague to be of much use. (Once the quake had occurred, statistical forecasting based on the size of the main shock did anticipate the possibility of its largest aftershock: a magnitude-6.3 quake in February that heavily damaged older structures in Christchurch.)

In the case of the Tohoku earthquake, the culprit was an “unknown unknown.” Japanese seismologists preparing official Japan forecasts have assumed that the offshore fault running the length of the main island north of Tokyo had largely revealed its true nature. “I thought we really understood the Tohoku area,” says seismologist James Mori of Kyoto University in Japan. “Five hundred years seemed to be a long enough quake history given the [large] number of earthquakes.”

Drawing on a centuries-long history of quakes of magnitude 7 to 8 rupturing various parts of the fault, members of the official Earthquake Research Committee had divided the offshore fault into six segments, each roughly 150 kilometers long, that they expected to rupture again. They assigned each segment a probability of rupturing again in the next 30 years; the probabilities ranged from a few percent to 99% in recent official forecasts.

Official forecasters had not included the possibility of more than two segments rupturing at once. They knew that two adjacent segments seemed to have broken together in 1793 to produce a magnitude-8.0 quake. And at their meeting in February, they also considered geologic evidence that a big tsunami in 869 C.E. had swept several kilometers inland across the same coastal plain inundated in March. But they concluded they had too little data to consider what sort of earthquake would result if more than two segments failed at once, says seismologist Kenji Satake of the University of Tokyo, who served on the committee. “I don't think anyone anticipated a 9.0,” Satake says.

In the event, five fault segments failed in one magnitude-9.0 quake (see p. 911). (The disastrous 2008 Wenchuan quake in China also grew to an unimagined size by breaking multiple fault segments.) In Japan, “what happened was a very improbable, 1000-year event,” Ellsworth says. The most dangerous earthquakes tend to be rare, and their very rarity, unfortunately, makes them hard to study.

In spite of the obstacles, improvements are on the way. Previous official forecasts for California considered each fault segment in isolation, and they ignored aftershocks such as those that caused so much damage in New Zealand. By contrast, Field says, the next forecast, due in 2012, will allow the possibility of ruptures breaking through onto adjacent segments, such as a rupture on a side fault breaking onto the San Andreas itself. And it will also accommodate aftershocks.

Seismologists are also beginning to test their models against new earthquakes as they occur. Because larger quakes are rarer than smaller ones, their forecasts take longer to test. (Testing on California quakes for the past 5 years, for example, gets you only up to magnitude 5.) So it pays to cast as wide a net as possible. “The best strategy is testing around the globe,” Stein says. He is chair of the scientific board of the GEM Foundation, a nonprofit based in Pavia, Italy, which is developing a global earthquake model to make worldwide forecasts. By including the whole world, Stein says, the model should enable scientists to test forecasts of big, damaging earthquakes in a practical amount of time.

8. History of Science

# The Alchemical Revolution

1. Sara Reardon

As cryptic manuscripts and centuries-old labware yield their secrets, scholars are coming to realize that medieval "chymists" were real scientists after all.

For possibly the first time in 2 millennia, a chemist has used an ancient formula to transmute silver into gold. The secret, a solution called “divine water,” was in an ancient Greco-Egyptian metalworking manuscript originally written on papyrus and preserved in a mummy wrapping. Following the recipe exactly (lime, sulfur, and the “urine of a youth” combined and heated “until the liquid looks like blood”), Lawrence Principe mixed chemicals under a fume hood, heated the solution over a Bunsen burner, dropped in a silver Canadian Maple Leaf coin, and watched, pleased, as the coin turned yellow.

It wasn't real gold, of course. Principe, who holds dual Ph.D.s in organic chemistry and history of science, says the layer of gold-tinted oxidation on the coin's surface might be useful for making metal ornaments look more expensive. But if the metal's color could be changed, a 3rd century thinker might have surmised, then why not its other properties? Could any base metal be transmuted entirely into gold?

Those were reasonable questions for the time, Principe believes. “Science doesn't progress ever forward in one grand, royal road,” he says. “It's a twisted, thorny labyrinth with multiple pathways.” Yet alchemy is certainly a thorn in the side of historians: an unwelcome reminder of science's foray into magic.

Principe and a growing number of other science historians, however, hold that alchemists—“chymists” is their preferred, less-loaded term—were serious scientists who kept careful lab notes and followed the scientific method as well as any modern researcher. He tests that hypothesis by recreating their experiments in a sunny storage closet repurposed as a small lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. If the alchemists saw what they claimed, he says, then it's high time for an “alchemical revolution” to restore them to scientific respectability.

In the view of these advocates, alchemists have been unjustly ranked with witches and mountebank performers, when in fact they were educated men with limited tools for inquiring into the nature of the universe. The mystical stories that shroud their writings suggest that they were busy recording spiritual visions. But the truth is more complex: As concerned as modern patent applicants about having their secrets stolen, chymists often coded their protocols behind a tapestry of arcane metaphors, allegories, and drawings. Their royal patrons encouraged such obscurity, worrying that successful transmutation of metal into gold would devalue their currency. And too much clarity could prove fatal at a time when falsely claiming success at transmutation might be punishable by death.

If the lives of the chymists weren't hard enough, in the late 17th century as the European Enlightenment took the stage, a rising class of scientific professionals began a deliberate campaign to smear the entire discipline. In a talk to Leiden University professors in 1718, the Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave apologized in advance about his topic. “I must talk about chemistry!” he said. “About chemistry! A subject disagreeable, vulgar, laborious, [and] far from the affairs of intelligent people.” Well-known scientists such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle dabbled in chymistry at their peril; their work was often hidden from other scholars or suppressed, only to resurface in the 20th century. While chemistry eventually regained its good name, alchemy remained a bête noire among historians of science for centuries. Until recently, peer-reviewed journals refused to publish papers on the topic.

“The way alchemy was presented in the early 1980s was a parody, partially created in the 18th century and added to by people who didn't read the sources and tried to recraft the sources into their own ideas,” Principe says. “But what was the daily activity of an alchemist? When he got up each morning and went into his workshop, what was actually in the flasks that he held? What was he thinking about?” That's the question Principe says he's been working on for 30 years, “and I'm still trying to answer it. It's maybe a bit obsessive.”

Obsession is what it takes: Even after cutting through all the symbolic coding, recreating experiments is difficult. “We talk about lots of these processes as though they were easy, while they actually involve a lot of tacit knowledge,” says William Newman, a historian at Indiana University, Bloomington, who also works on chymistry re-creations—some of them with a furnace in his own garage. Considering that even the best post-Renaissance experimenters distilled phosphorus from urine, melted silver from whatever coins they might be carrying, and used inexact heat sources, their results were difficult, if not impossible, for them to reproduce. “You have to back-engineer to understand how the theory integrates with the practice,” Newman says. “There's no better way to do that than to do the experiments themselves.”

Principe's current pet project is to understand the glow of the Bologna stone: a legendary rock that, when placed in a fire, was one of the first recorded examples of natural phosphorescence. By chance, a 17th century cobbler who had put a piece of barite in his fire stumbled upon the perfect combination of factors to light it, but re-creating the process stumped centuries of chymists. Following clues from a manuscript by the 17th century natural philosopher (and alchemist) Wilhelm Homberg, Principe went to Italy and retrieved bits of barite from a field that is now a skeet-shooting range outside Bologna. In a replica he built of Homberg's oven, and measuring parameters such as temperature, pressure, and gas exchange, he's gotten them to glow faintly—just as described 300 years ago. “As I read Homberg's description, both of the stones and how you work with them, I never understood it at a really deep level until I had done it myself,” Principe says.

Re-creating experiments, the historians say, helps describe how the mysteries that teased early chymists gave rise to modern science. For example, Newman traces atomic theory directly back to the early 17th century German chymist Daniel Sennert. The existence of atoms had been proposed on metaphysical grounds centuries earlier, but Sennert was the first to infer it experimentally. While researching transmutation, he found that silver could be re-isolated after being dissolved in nitric acid—evidence, Sennert concluded, that metals are made up of irreducible “corpuscles.”

“A lot of scientific laws that were formulated as late as the 19th century were actually in play much earlier than we had imagined,” says archaeologist Marcos Martinón-Torres of University College London. “We easily dismiss things chymists did as superstitious, but when you look further into it, they have a lot more ingenuity than we credit them for.”

For instance, as early as the 14th century, many alchemists believed that their experiments would work only if their crucibles were made in the Hesse region of Germany. While excavating labs in Austria, Martinón-Torres dug up broken shards of such crucibles and analyzed their chemical makeup using scanning electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, and other imaging techniques. It turned out there was truth behind the lore: In a 2006 paper in Nature, Martinón-Torres revealed that Hessian potters in the 15th century knew how to make a highly heat-resistant ceramic component now called mullite. The secret, later lost and not rediscovered until the 1920s, enabled chymists to conduct technically demanding experiments.

Martinón-Torres also analyzed traces of the chemicals the crucibles had held. For the most part, he says, the results agree with the chymists' notes. “They never discovered transmutation, but they discovered modern experimental science instead,” he says—and with it tangible byproducts such as cosmetics, pigments, and medicines.

These new realizations have brought a swarm of students to the field and inspired a growing number of international conferences on alchemy. “I can't even keep up with the literature now,” Principe says. History is being rewritten as scholars unearth neglected manuscripts, outing a growing number of early scientists as closet alchemists.

On one such foray, Principe recently struck a glimmer of gold. He found buried in a Russian military archive an unpublished chymistry textbook by Homberg, the official chemist of the French Royal Academy. The manuscript had been hidden since 1716; Principe spent 7 years tracking it down. In it, Homberg claimed to have discovered the philosopher's stone: the fabled element that would transmute base metals into gold.

“He was an alchemist!” Principe says with glee. Homberg had covertly searched for the secret of transmutation with the Duc d'Orleans and described his successful method in his textbook, much to the chagrin of the nascent academy. “The academy is funded by the crown; they're publicly the most visible intellectuals in France. You don't want them dealing with something that has this bad reputation,” says Principe, who is currently writing a biography of Homberg. “That's probably why his final manuscript was never published.”

So what happens if Principe manages to re-create Homberg's last protocol right down to the pièce de résistance? “If I do, you can visit me in my lavish villa somewhere and ask me about it,” he told an audience at the 2011 meeting of AAAS (publisher of Science). “I won't tell you about it, but I can offer you a glass of wine and we can talk about something else.”