Notebook

BANNER YEAR: Sig Hecker will step down on a high note. Late last month, Sig Hecker, the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, announced that he would leave his post in one year. Hecker says his decision did not hinge on ever-increasing cutbacks at the national labs. On the contrary, he comments, "actually, right now things [at Los Alamos] look as positive scientifically and from a budget standpoint as they have in 10 years. So it's a good time to step down when everything i

Oct 28, 1996
The Scientist Staff


BANNER YEAR: Sig Hecker will step down on a high note.
Late last month, Sig Hecker, the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, announced that he would leave his post in one year. Hecker says his decision did not hinge on ever-increasing cutbacks at the national labs. On the contrary, he comments, "actually, right now things [at Los Alamos] look as positive scientifically and from a budget standpoint as they have in 10 years. So it's a good time to step down when everything is going well." For 1996-97, he says, "we actually have a budget increase, and I think the other labs are all struggling with either flat or slightly decreasing budgets." In fact, he adds, Los Alamos "expects to add on the order of 100 to 200 scientists and engineers in the next year to 18 months." He has been director of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was designed and detonated, since 1986. During his reign the lab has gone through some drastic changes. When Hecker signed on as director, Los Alamos employed 8,100 and had a budget of $1.15 billion, while today the lab employs close to 7,000 on a budget of $1.07 billion. After he steps down in one year, Hecker plans to continue research in plutonium metallurgy at Los Alamos and work in national and international science policy.

Weary of political fights over timber-harvesting practices and policy, Jack Ward Thomas, the chief of the United States Forest Service, announced earlier this month that he would be leaving his post. In 1993, Thomas, the first research scientist to head the service, was appointed to run the agency by President Bill Clinton. Environmental researchers were heartened by his appointment, saying it boded well for an agency in the midst of transition from a timber commodity-based outlook to an ecosystem-based approach, although timber officials and some environmentalists disagreed with the choice (K.Y. Kreeger, The Scientist, Jan. 10, 1994, page 3). In a news conference announcing his resignation on October 11, Thomas labeled the Forest Service's mission "somewhat confused," according to an Associated Press report (New York Times, Oct. 11, 1996, page A22). He expressed hope that "after the elections there will be time for everyone to sit down and talk about giving the Forest Service a clear mission." It remains doubtful, however, that he will be part of those discussions. Thomas now plans to teach at the University of Montana.



ELECTRIFYING: Clay Armstrong works with cell-membrane channels.

UPSURGE: Bertil Hille notes the rise in ion channel papers.
Earlier this month Columbia University awarded two biophysicists the 1996 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, which recognizes outstanding research in biology or biochemistry. Clay Armstrong, a professor of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Bertil Hille, a professor of physiology and biophysics from the University of Washington in Seattle, received their award at a ceremony on October 16 in New York City. They shared a $22,000 monetary prize. Honored along with Hille and Armstrong at the ceremony was Leland Hartwell, the 1995 Horwitz Prize winner (Notebook, The Scientist, Feb. 5, 1996, page 30). Hartwell, a professor of genetics also from Washington, was unable to travel to the January 1996 ceremony because of winter storms. Armstrong and Hille are being honored for their research on cellular ion channels, gateways in the cell's membrane that allow ions to pass in and out. Their work on muscle and nerve cells revealed how electrical signals called action potentials control certain aspects of cellular electrophysiology. Commenting on the growth of the field over the past 20 years, Hille remarks, "looking in MedLine, now one sees 5,000 papers a year in this area, but at the time Clay Armstrong and I started, there were about 10 papers altogether."



MR. PINK: Plastic flamingo won inventor an Ig Nobel Prize.

GOOD, BAD & UGLY: AIR's Marc Abrahams
This year's edition of the Ig Nobel Prizes-dubbed the "sixth first annual" by organizers-was held at Harvard University early this month to honor achievements "that cannot or should not be reproduced." Presented by the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), the 1996 Ig Nobels once again gently tweaked a few obvious targets. The prize for literature, for example, was awarded to the editors of Social Text, who were hoodwinked by New York University physicist Alan Sokal's nonsensical parody of postmodernism (A. Sokal, Social Text, 46-47:217-52, 1996) and published it as a legitimate paper. Five tobacco-company officials received the Ig Nobel in medicine "for their unshakable discovery, as testified before the U.S. Congress, that nicotine is not addictive." Of course, the requisite silliness was present as well. The Ig Nobel in biology went to the authors of "Effect of ale, garlic, and soured cream on the appetite of leeches" (A. Baerheim, H. Sandvik, British Medical Journal, 309:1689, 1994) and in public health to the authors of "Transmission of gonorrhea through an inflatable doll" (E. Kleist, H. Moi, Genitourinary Medicine, 69:322, 1993). The prize in art was given to Don Featherstone of Fitchburg, Mass., the inventor of the plastic pink flamingo. "The Igs, down deep, are about people getting interested in science and involved in science," says AIR editor Marc Abrahams. "It's a celebration of the good, the bad, and occasionally the ugly, but mostly the good." Robert Matthews of Aston University in England, lauded in physics for his studies of Murphy's Law and for demonstrating that toast always falls on the buttered side (R. Matthews, European Journal of Physics, 16:172-6, 1995), sent along an audiotaped acceptance speech, while George Goble of Purdue University, cited in chemistry for lighting a barbecue in three seconds using charcoal and liquid oxygen, had a colleague accept his award. Anyone offended by the Ig Nobels-such as Robert May, the British government's science adviser and an objector to the prizes because so many are awarded to United Kingdom scientists-is missing the point, according to Abrahams. "The [awards] committee would hesitate to ever say it's trying to make a statement, or that it's even capable of making a statement," he deadpans.


Under a proposal announced recently by President Bill Clinton's administration, Internet communication speeds between selected universities and national laboratories could increase up to 1,000 times. As reported by FYI, the American Institute of Physics' online bulletin of science policy news, the "Next-Generation Internet" initiative would spend $100 million-$30 million from the National Science Foundation and the departments of Energy, Commerce, and Education, and $70 million from the Department of Defense-during fiscal year 1998 as part of the High Performance Computing and Communications program. Speaking in Knoxville, Tenn., education secretary Dick Riley, White House press secretary Mike McCurry, and Greg Simon, Vice President Al Gore's chief domestic policy adviser, stated that details still had to be developed and that funding beyond 1998 would not be pledged until the program is evaluated. The plan would increase 'Net speeds between at least 100 universities and national labs by a factor of 100 to 1,000. It describes Next-Generation Internet capabilities as "an increased ability to handle real-time multimedia applications . . . sufficient bandwidth to transfer and manipulate huge volumes of data . . . the ability to access remote supercomputers . . . and the ability to collaborate with other scientists and engineers in shared, virtual environments, including reliable and secure remote use of scientific facilities." The cyberbug apparently has hit both men campaigning for the presidency this year. GOP candidate Bob Dole closed his first debate with Clinton by urging young people to check out his Web site, and the president himself, in making the Next-Generation Internet announcement, referenced the home page of his cat, Socks (http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/kids/html/home.html), also known as the White House for Kids.


A team of researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Yale University have identified major areas in the brain that are activated during drug craving by cocaine addicts. Edythe London, director of the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Center at NIDA, and her colleagues for the first time have seen changes in the brain that are triggered by environmental cues associated with past drug use and that lead to drug craving. Using PET scanning, the researchers measured how fast different parts of the volunteers' brains metabolized glucose, indicating how fast they are working. They put 13 cocaine abusers and five control volunteers in two situations. One was neutral; the other situation provided stimuli in which they would be reminded of drug use. The researchers gave a questionnaire to the volunteers to report their urges for cocaine. "The idea was to map the brain activity during craving, not only to find which areas are turned on, but also to see if there was a correlation between brain area activity and how much a person says he craves the drug," she says. Stimuli in the situations consisted of drug paraphernalia, cocaine powder, and a video of people snorting cocaine. Stimuli in the neutral situations were arts-and-crafts tools and a video of someone using the tools. The scientists saw several areas of the brain activated when the drug abusers were exposed to the drug-related material, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the cerebellum, regions involved in aspects of memory. "When control volunteers were put in similar situations, there was no activation, indicating the relevance of the environmental stimuli," London explains. The researchers reported their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (S. Grant et al., 93:12040-45, Oct. 15, 1996). The work may enable scientists to test new addiction medications. "We have a paradigm now to test anti-drug-craving medication," she notes. "We can monitor quantitatively, rather than relying on what a patient says, whether or not a medication can affect a specific area of the brain and affect craving. These regions-such as the amygdala, which mediates emotional aspects of memory-and their neurotransmitter pathways could offer new therapeutic targets. It's a real breakthrough."


Dragonfly, a new "magazine of investigation" for kids, aims to "take some of the mystery out of science and of scientists," according to project coordinator Lynne Born Myers. The magazine, developed by Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and published bimonthly during the school year, debuted last month. Its audience is children three to six years of age. Myers explains that instead of hearing from scientists about their work in progress and the scientific process, children only read about results. "Kids have less of an appreciation of the creative and scientific process that way," she says. Myers and her husband and collaborator, Chris Myers, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Miami and the magazine's editor-in-chief, "thought kids would have a clearer idea of what science and scientists are all about if we had a magazine in which scientists wrote in first person about their research directly to the kids," she explains. Students can also write about their experiences in science in the classroom and at home. "We have Web pages and a mailing list in which the kids send in their questions." The magazine is unique, Myers believes: "We haven't found any other national publication that includes both scientists and student contributions." The theme of Dragonfly's first issue is flight. The magazine is published by NSTA every other month during the school year. The project is sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant for $1.7 million for three years. To receive a free issue, call (800) 722-NSTA.