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Past Highlights

September 2004





Out of Africa: Scientists Find Earliest Evidence Yet of Human Presence in Northeast Asia


Overview of the oldest excavated archaeological stratum at Majuangou.Early humans lived in northern China about 1.66 million years ago, according to research reported in the journal Nature this week. The finding suggests humans -- characterized by their making and use of stone tools -- inhabited upper Asia almost 340,000 years before previous estimates placed them there, surviving in a pretty hostile environment. The research team, including Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, reports the results of excavating four layers of sediments at Majuangou in north China. All the layers contained indisputable stone tools apparently made by early humans, known to researchers as "hominins."
Image: R. Potts, Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/29/04


Quantum Universe Web Site Launched
New site describes revolution in 21st-century particle physics


A computer's graphical representation of multi-dimensional spacetime. Members of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, meeting in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 24, announced the launch of the Quantum Universe Web site. Along with HEPAP's recently published Quantum Universe report, the new site describes the quest to explain the universe in terms of quantum physics, which governs the behavior of the subatomic world. The site describes a revolution in particle physics and a quantum leap in our understanding of the mystery and beauty of the universe.
Image: Jean-Francois Colonna
Visit the Quantum Universe Web Site. ... Posted 9/24/04


NSF, AAAS Announce Winners of 2004 Visualization Contest


Autofluorescence of Tick Nymph on a Mammalian HostJudges have named 11 winners in the 2004 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, an annual international competition created to recognize outstanding achievement in use of graphics media to illustrate research processes and results. The contest is jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Winning entries in this year's competition span research fields from viral medicine to Earth science and span the globe from Germany to Seattle. They are published in the Sept. 24 issue of Science and in the journal's electronic edition "Science Online."
Image: Marna E. Ericson, University of Minnesota
Read the full story.
View the 2004 results. ... Posted 9/23/04


President Bush Announces His Intention to Nominate Arden L. Bement, Jr., for NSF Director


Photo of President George W. Bush meeting with Arden L. Bement, Jr., in the Oval Office of the White House on Sept. 15, 2004President George W. Bush announced on Sept. 15, 2004, his intention to nominate Arden L. Bement, Jr., to be the director of the National Science Foundation for the remainder of a six-year term ending August 2, 2010. Currently, Dr. Bement serves as Acting Director of NSF, a position he has held since Feb. 22, 2004, and as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He has been NIST's director since Dec. 7, 2001. Previously, he served as the David A. Ross Distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering and head of the School of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue University. He earned his bachelor's degree from the Colorado School of Mines, his master's degree from the University of Idaho, and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
Image: Paul Morse, White House
Read the White House announcement
Dr. Bement's Biography. ... Posted 9/20/04


Scientists Shed Light on Mechanism Behind Beneficial Effects of Red Wine


Compounds found in red wineScientists are a step closer to understanding the health benefits of drinking red wine. Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and affiliated with the Salk Institute in San Diego, Calif., have succeeded in converting chalcone synthase, a biosynthetic protein enzyme found in all higher plants, into an efficient resveratrol synthase. Resveratrol, a beneficial component of red wine, is thought to contribute to the improved cardiovascular effects associated with moderate consumption of red wine. The research results appear in the September issue of the journal Chemistry & Biology.
Image: Joseph Noel, Salk Institute
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/17/04


Proving That Shape-Shifting Robots Can Get a Move On


Nine Crystal robot modulesIt started with tennis balls. As a former collegiate tennis player, Daniela Rus habitually rolls two tennis balls around in her hand as she paces her office. As a robotics researcher at Dartmouth College, she wondered why the tennis balls shouldn't be able to roll themselves around. She soon determined that electromagnets didn't have enough lifting power to solve the tennis-ball problem. However, her question led to a decade-long research program into the challenges of designing robots that reconfigure themselves to perform different tasks.
Image: Robert Fitch, Dartmouth College
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/16/04


Ecology of Infectious Diseases Grants Awarded by National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health


flat-headed batThe National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have announced funding for six projects under the Ecology of Infectious Diseases (EID) program, the fifth year of funding in this multi-year effort. The joint program supports efforts to understand the ecological and biological mechanisms that govern relationships between human-induced environmental changes and the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases.
Image: M.R. Willig, NSF
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/15/04


Research Uncovers Added Value of Streamside Forests
Studies demonstrate that trees keep pollutants out of streams, help process pollutants in them


Birch Run StreamA team of researchers led by scientists from the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pa., has discovered that streamside (or riparian) forests play a critical – and previously unacknowledged – role in protecting the world's fresh water. Their findings, funded jointly by the National Science Foundation and Environmental Protection Agency and published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have significant implications for a world that is facing a huge and growing freshwater crisis.
Image: David H. Funk
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/13/04


Complex Cells Likely Arose from Combination of Bacterial and Extreme-Microbe Genomes
New "ring of life" points to mergers and acquisitions between cells


Segment of illustration of ring of life.According to a new report, complex cells like those in the human body probably resulted from the fusion of genomes from an ancient bacterium and a simpler microbe, Archaea, best known for its ability to withstand extreme temperatures and hostile environments. The finding provides strong evidence that complex cells arose from combinations of simpler organisms in a symbiotic effort to survive. Jim Lake and Maria Rivera, at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), report their finding in the Sept. 9 issue of the journal Nature.
Image: National Science Foundation
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/8/04


Physicists Create Artificial Molecule on a Chip


In circuit QED experiments, a photon trapped between the transmission lines (tan) couples to the artificial atom, or qubit (purple).Using integrated circuit fabrication techniques, a team of researchers from Yale University has bound a single photon to a superconducting device engineered to behave like a single atom, forming an artificial molecule. It's the first experimental result in a field Yale professors Robert Schoelkopf and Steven Girvin have dubbed Circuit Quantum Electrodynamics. The superconducting devices can be operated as qubits, the basic element of information storage in the field of quantum computing. In the September 9th issue of the journal Nature, Andreas Wallraff and his colleagues present telltale evidence that their qubit was coupling to a microwave photon, sharing energy in much the same way electrons are shared when two atoms combine to form a molecule.
Image: D. Schuster and L. Frunzio, Schoelkopf Group, Yale University
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/8/04


Astronomers Find New Class of Planets Outside the Solar System
Two new "Neptunes" are the smallest extra-solar planets yet—but could be the first of many


Artist's conception of a newly discovered planet the size of Neptune orbitting the cool, reddish M-dwarf star Gliese 436.A team of astronomers has announced the discovery of some of the smallest planets yet detected beyond our solar system: two worlds that represent a new category of extra-solar planets, as well as significant and much-anticipated advance in the hunt for such objects. Each of newly discovered planets is roughly comparable to the planet Neptune in our own solar system, says Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, a veteran planet-hunter and a co-discoverer of this pair. That's still pretty big on a terrestrial scale, he says: Neptune has 17 times the mass of the Earth. But it's tiny compared to the 120-plus extra-solar planets that have been discovered to date.
Image: NASA/G. Bacon
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/1/04


MIT Fab Labs Bring "Personal Fabrication" to People Around the World


Photo of older student helping younger ones in the lab.Fluorescent pink key chains may not immediately call to mind "high-tech," but for students in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana, key chains designed and manufactured by their own hands on modern fabrication tools represents the first link from the high-tech world to the world they live in. In July and August, a team from MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) deployed its sixth field "fab lab," based on the campus of the Takoradi Technical Institute in the sister cities of Sekondi and Takoradi in Ghana's southwest corner. With about $20,000 worth of equipment, a fab lab is a hands-on laboratory that provides the technology to let people build just about anything from inexpensive and readily available materials. The goal of the fab lab is to help people use advanced information technologies to develop and produce solutions to local problems.
Image: Amy Sun, Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/1/04


Not-So-Spotty Material Breakthrough
Researchers master self-assembly of novel nanodots


Transmission electron microscope image of nickel nanodots embedded in an aluminum oxide matrix.Using pulsed lasers, researchers have coaxed the metal nickel to self-assemble into arrays of nanodots -- each spot a mere seven nanometers (seven billionths of a meter) across -- one-tenth the diameter of nickel nanodots and on par with the world's smallest. The researchers are working with an industry partner to apply the technique to development of next-generation light-emitting diodes (LEDs) – the small, bright lights seen in traffic signals and luxury automobile brake lights. The experimental LEDs are already more efficient than existing devices, potentially lasting decades and using a fraction of the power of fluorescent bulbs. Because the method works with a variety of materials and may drastically reduce imperfections, the new procedure may also bolster research into extremely hard materials and efforts to develop ultra-dense computer memory.
Image: Jagdish Narayan and Ashutosh Tiwari, North Carolina State University/NSF Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures.
Read the full story. ... Posted 9/1/04


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