In brief

Zeitgest

Africa’s mathematical excellence

Africa is not short of brilliant, highly motivated researchers. However, in the area of science, the African continent is desperately short of resources and, above all, profiles of excellence. A massive 90% of African mathematics doctoral students obtaining their doctorate abroad never return home. However, new initiatives are gradually being set in place that herald a brighter future. Four years ago saw the inauguration of the African Institute for  Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in the small town of Muizenberg, near Cape Town in South Africa. The result of a partnership between European and South African universities, the institute offers a unique and highly innovative new concept for mathematics post-graduate studies. At the institute, professors and students all live under the same roof throughout the nine-month postgraduate course and forge strong bonds via their shared passion. Every year around 50 students from all over Africa undergo a rigorous selection procedure for a chance to participate in the course. The October 2007 issue of the Nature Materials magazine pays tribute to AIMS as a hothouse for African scientific talent. Don’t miss out on reading about it...

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Short reprieve for glaciers

The Mont Blanc and Dôme du Goûter  glaciers (FR) are starting to arouse concern among researchers at the CNRS  glaciology laboratory. © CNRS Photothèque/Christian Vincent The Mont Blanc and Dôme du Goûter glaciers (FR) are starting to arouse concern among researchers at the CNRS glaciology laboratory. © CNRS Photothèque/Christian Vincent

In issue 53 of research*eu, we reported that global warming was not yet causing high-altitude glaciers to melt. The bad news is that new results recently published by the same researchers from the CNRS, the French national scientific research centre (Centre national de la research scientifique) have recently put a dampener on this optimistic conclusion. After measuring the rate of snow accumulation on the Dôme du Goûter in France,  glaciologists have been studying the data gathered between 1994 and 2005 from temperature sensors sited along 140-metre boreholes drilled into the slopes of the glacier. Their research uncovered a temperature rise of between  1°C and 1.5°C along the first 60 metres of ice. Physical modelling of heat flow shows that this warming is a result not only of global warming but also of the heat produced by the refreezing at the glacier base of snow that has melted at the surface. An extrapolation of these results to simulate the future behaviour of high-altitude glaciers (at a height of between 3 500 and 4 250 metres) shows that these “cold” glaciers could gradually become “warm”  glaciers, with a base temperature of 0°C, compared with the current 0°C to –11°C.
Research*eu, no. 53, September 2007


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China launches its first lunar satellite…

7 November 2007 will go down in the history of China’s conquest of space. At 08.35, its first lunar satellite, Chang’e-1, entered a 127-minute polar circular orbit without a hitch. Launched on 24 October from the Xichang satellite launch centre in southwest China, aboard the launch vehicle Long March 3A, Chang’e-1 successfully negotiated its 1 580 000 km flight to the moon. The satellite was placed into orbit so accurately that Chinese experts claim to have saved enough fuel to extend the Chang’e-1 expedition by approximately one more year. The four major goals of China’s first mission on the moon are to: undertake a three-dimensional study of the moon’s surface; analyse the quantity and distribution of the elements on the moon’s surface; investigate the characteristics of the moon’s mantle rock and the powdery layer of soil on the moon’s surface; and explore the area of space between Earth and the moon.


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…and Japan strides forward

After a perilous journey, the Japanese lunar spacecraft Kaguya/Selene, launched on 14 September 2007, successfully completed the first part of its mission. The spacecraft comprises three units – the main orbiter satellite and two secondary satellites. The two secondary satellites were smoothly launched on 9 and 12 October and  entered orbit without a hitch. The main spacecraft arrived at its destination as planned on 21 October, much to the relief of Japanese scientists. Dubbed the most ambitious lunar programme since Apollo, the aim of the  Kaguya/Selene mission is to increase understanding of the origin and evolution of the Moon, as well as to gather as much data as possible for use in future explorations. With the planned launch of India’s lunar satellite  Chandrayaan-1 in April 2008, the launches of Kaguya/Selene and Chang’e-1 into orbit mark the start of Asia’s conquest of space… and will provide scientists of every kind with a highly promising source of fresh information to study.

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Dolphins reported missing

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

For the past 13 years, researchers from the BDRP programme for the conservation of Atlantic marine life (Biscay  Dolphin Research Programme) have been studying the Bay of Biscay, which is teeming with 20 or so species of whale and dolphin, as well as more than 100 000 marine animals. However, researchers affiliated to the British organisation Marinelife have observed an 80 % reduction in three species of dolphin since summer 2007: the common dolphin, striped dolphin and bottlenose dolphin. A fall in the number of sea birds has also been noted since spring 2007. These sudden and alarming disappearances could have been caused by the increasing scarcity of fish stocks as a result of overfishing, depriving dolphins and birds of necessary food. Another possible cause might be trawl fishing, where dolphins are inadvertently dragged along in the nets.

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Capuchin monkeys go on strike

Primates studied at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. © Frans de Waal, Yerkes National Primate Research Center Primates studied at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. © Frans de Waal, Yerkes National Primate Research Center

Do primates have a concept of fairness? When they complete a task but see one of their companions receive a better reward for the same effort, capuchin monkeys refuse to comply further, even to the point of throwing their inferior reward (in this case, cucumbers) in the researchers’ faces! The team of scientists from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta (USA) that made this discovery reported this behaviour in 2003. However, they remained uncertain about the exact reason for the capuchin monkey rebellion. The monkeys’ reaction could have been produced by the knowledge that a more juicy reward was available. However, the latest experiments have proven that capuchin monkeys do not rebel if their companions are rewarded in exactly the same way for a similar task. The results could therefore indicate the evolutionary origin of our human sense of injustice.

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Black holes found at last!

Composite colour image of Galaxy NGS 1097, with a bright source in the  centre of the ring and a gigantic black hole. © ESO Composite colour image of Galaxy NGS 1097, with a bright source in the centre of the ring and a gigantic black hole. © ESO

By examining images of more than 1 000 remote galaxies, astronomers have discovered the numerous black holes that theorists had been predicting for years, but which nobody had ever actually observed. Situated at the centre of galaxies, supermassive black holes (or quasars for those with more energy) are surrounded by a ring of gases and  dust. This can absorb the x-rays emitted by the gas sucked into the black hole, which can normally be detected from Earth, masking its presence. Emanuelle Daddi’s team of astrophysicists from the French atomic energy  agency, CEA (Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique) superimposed infrared images from Spitzer over x-ray images  from Chandra (both NASA satellites). By revealing weak x-rays, they have shown the existence of massive black holes at the core of at least 20 % of the galaxies situated between 9 and 11 billion light years away from Earth. This discovery furthers our understanding of the formation of remote galaxies: in its infancy, the Universe would have formed hundreds of millions of massive black holes. The discovery has shown that collisions between galaxies – formerly considered to be the mechanism triggering the active phases of quasars – do not play any such crucial role in the formation of young galaxies. In fact many galaxies harbour a quasar even though they have not undergone a collision.

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EUROPEAN NEWS

Moving towards a European research ministry

Janez Potočnik. © European Commission Janez Potočnik. © European Commission

The Commission should quit its role of a research project financing institution and become a decisionmaking body in which tomorrow’s science policies are forged, according to Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research, speaking at a political debate organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC) on 11 October 2007.
Creating an external agency to manage Commission-sponsored research projects would free up the Directorate-General for Science and Research to refocus on developing policies for managing and promoting the European Research Area (ERA). DG Research would then gradually develop into a real, decision-making European research  ministry of sorts. The Commissioner envisages this reorganisation taking place by 2013, even if it is going to be difficult to outsource certain superprojects like Galileo.


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When powders turn into crystals

Microcrystal structures will soon be giving up their secrets. Early last October, researchers at the Institut Lavoisier (FR), using a new device from the ESRF (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility), succeeded in determining the crystalline structure of a composite of the order of one cubic micron for the first time anywhere in the world. Until now composites have had to be bigger than 1 000 cubic microns (i.e. 10 times larger in each direction) for X-ray diffraction analysis. Below this, grains were viewed as a powder, the properties of which could be characterised, and then only with great difficulty, by the “powder diffraction method”. Using the new ESRF device, that combines a light beam focusing system with a goniometer, it is now possible to characterize grains a thousand times smaller. This opens up a myriad of new prospects for chemists, physicians and biologists, as characterizing the crystalline structure of a molecule effectively lifts the veil on its properties.

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Oceans are becoming CO2 saturated

Plankton net on CarboOcean scientific vessels. © CarboOcean Plankton net on CarboOcean scientific vessels. © CarboOcean

The North Atlantic’s CO2 absorption capacity appears to have fallen by 50% over a 10-year period. At least this is what researchers from the European CarboOcean project have recently concluded from an analysis of data gathered between 1995 and 2005 by commercial cargo vessels. Scientists, who are blaming global warming for the  slowing of the oceans’ “carbon pump”, are concerned at how these new data will affect the models used until now to predict climate evolution. If the seas were to soak up less carbon dioxide, the concentration of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere would increase much more and faster than expected. This news sends shivers down our spines, in particular as experts are predicting that CO2 saturation in the oceans could be followed by the massive liberation of the CO2 already imprisoned in it. Another study in May 2007 warned of similar saturation of the Southern Ocean which encircles the Antarctic.

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Belgium: one point

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

US magazine The Scientist published last November the results of its Best Places to Work, 2007 survey. And to  everyone’s surprise, little Belgium has beaten the United States and Canada to top place as the best country for doing research. This is a big first for this little European state, which had dropped from 4th to 6th place between 2004 and 2006. The survey has been organised every year since 1993, and this year’s result reflects the responses received from more than 2 000 American, Canadian and European scientists. These results come as a shot in the arm to Belgium, which went through a serious political crisis in 2007.


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Emotions laboratory

Research is continuing into the sensitive area of human emotions. The FeelEurope platform, initiated under the 6th Framework Programme, brings together 30 experts from 10 EU countries to discuss the many ways of measuring emotions. Their work will provide a basis for new research, technologies, cooperative ventures and innovations aimed at developing specific technical applications and various cognitive systems like human-computer interfaces, emotional training systems and robots that are able to express emotions. The physiological impact of human emotions is undeniable. In addition to simple analysis methods like voice recognition, FeelEurope aims to develop   new methods using innovative signal recognition algorithms. The current inventory of knowledge in this area will make it possible to define new research avenues for projects in the 7th Framework Programme.

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Forest site

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

The European Forest Institute and the University of Joensuu (FI) have recently joined forces to launch Euroforest, a free portal for European forestry experts. This easily accessible and particularly exhaustive portal   offers a wide range of data – organisations, web pages, information networks, and a selection of particularly valuable reports – by subject or geographical area. Specific sections on key themes like ecosystems, biodiversity, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions make the portal particularly valuable for forestry research. With information potentially available in every Community language, Euroforest will be a valuable resource for better understanding these plant and animal communities that are among the most complex on our planet.

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Ozone in better shape

Forecasts for 2005. © KNMI/ESA Forecasts for 2005. © KNMI/ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Envisat satellite has recently shown a 30 % contraction of the hole in the ozone layer compared with the record year of 2006. But this does not necessarily mean that the ozone layer is reconstituting. At the time of the analysis, the hole had moved further away from the South Pole, mixing in with  warmer air, which placed a break on its growth (ozone disappears at temperatures below –78 °C). These data come from an ozone layer monitoring and forecasting department of the ESA, which brings together over 30 partners from 11 countries in the Promote (PROtocol MOniToring for the global monitoring for Environment and security service element) consortium.

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Hips linked to breast cancer

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

Hips, which are traditional indicators of fertility, can also be linked with breast cancer. A US–European research  team examined over 6 000 Finnish women for this type of cancer. Comparison of the hip sizes of patients' mothers showed a strong correlation between a mother’s hip size and her daughters’ propensity for breast cancer. The  larger and rounder the mother’s hips, the greater the chances of her daughters developing breast cancer. For the researchers, this link can be explained by the mothers’ hormonal profiles. Large, round hips indicate high levels of sexual hormone production. During its gestation, the foetus is in direct contact with the maternal hormones, inducing a greater danger of breast cancer.


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Cheated cockroaches

Cockroaches believe in consultative decision-making. Scientists had suspected this for a very long time, but had not come up with any experiment with which to test this theory. Now they have, thanks to the researchers of Leurre (the French word for a “lure” or “decoy”), a European project with the global objective of analyzing animals’ social behaviour. To demonstrate this collective decision-making process, scientists used mini-robots, christened Insbots, each the size of a cockroach and covered with pheromones. Not only were these mini-robots accepted by the cockroach colony in the Leurre project, but they also succeeded in interacting with the group, even as far at times as influencing the group’s decision-making. These results offer hope of developing ways of influencing the behaviour of animal groups or obtaining precision information for developing autonomous mini-robot systems.

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Arctic passage

© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

The melting of the Arctic ice cap reached a record this year. Its surface area was just 4.24 million km² in September 2007, compared with 8 million km² in 2005. Parallel with this, sea traffic in this part of the globe has increased significantly, both for mineral exploitation – gas, oil, etc. – and for tourism. This is due in particular to the improved accessibility of the Arctic Sea with the retreat of the pack ice. But experts from the International Ice Charting  Working Group (IICWG), meeting at the end of October in Italy at ESRIN, the ESA’s Earth observation centre, warn against increasing this traffic. Pack ice and icebergs are a far from negligible source of accidents – hence the importance of the new GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) sentry satellites developed by the ESA for maintaining an effective ice monitoring service.

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Evolution: safety lies not in flight

Unlike wasps, symphyta are hymenoptera that are characterised by their lack of  “waist”, as their abdomen is linked to the thorax across its full width. © Université Bretagne Sud Unlike wasps, symphyta are hymenoptera that are characterised by their lack of “waist”, as their abdomen is linked to the thorax across its full width. © Université Bretagne Sud

A team of Finnish, Swedish and German researchers has recently discovered a new evolution mechanism of the symphyta, common known as the sawfly even though it is a hymenoptera. This herbivorous insect reproduces by laying its larvae on plants, forming botanical galls, a very common type of excrescence in the plant world. But symphyta have enemies. Parasitoids colonise the galls, feeding on the larvae or evicting them. The genetic diversity of symphyta and parasitoids is impressive. Until now this diversity was believed to be linked essentially to the appearance of new plant species which allow symphyta to evolve by adapting to new hosts and so escaping the parasitoids – that is until these adapt in turn. But an 18-year study of galls from willow trees has shown that it is only as a last recourse that sawflies, in their evolution, take flight to other plant species. Rather they first develop  new types of gall, which disrupt the parasitoids’ plans. Of course, the latter diversify as a result, and the respite is provisional… no more than several million years!

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Biofilm research is getting organised

Mention biofilms and the first images that spring to mind are of biofouling, biocorrosion and resistance to antibiotics. But these micro-organism communities, with their particularity of adhering to one another thanks to a protective matrix, may also offer many positive perspectives, in particular for producing green energy or purifying water. At the end of September, the European Science Foundation (ESF) brought biotechnology, bioengineering and biomedicine experts together to exchange experience in this field. How do the various organisms of which certain biofilms are made up interact? How can we take advantage of them while neutralising their noxious effects? All these questions are waiting for a scientific explanation. Research needs to be organised, and it was therefore agreed to create a new body, the European Biofilm Net (EBN), to coordinate scientific research on this topic at a European level.

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Galileo fully funded at last!

© ESA © ESA

Galileo, the European satellite positioning programme, was going nowhere very fast. The break-up in May 2007 of the industrial consortium tasked with manufacturing and launching the satellites had left the project entangled in a political imbroglio and short of €2.4 billion, following the withdrawal of private funding. But the European Council and Parliament finally reached an agreement in late November 2007. €1.6 billion will be redirected from  the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with the remaining €0.8 billion coming from the 7th Framework Programme,  more specifically from the budget for transport research projects. This is an historic step for the European Union. For the first time ever, the 2008 budget will be making more money available to employment, growth and competition than to agriculture.

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Atomic-scale whirlwinds

Four researchers from the universities of Bonn, Berlin and Geneva have observed the existence of magnetic  whirlwinds formed by atoms and their direction of rotation – clockwise or anticlockwise. This discovery should lead to a new data storage device. With the help of optical laser technology, the team unveiled the direction of these whirlwinds in lithium-cobalt phosphate, naming the phenomenon “ferrotoroidicity”. To get a picture of these whirlwinds of magnetised atoms, imagine a succession of tiny straight magnets placed one behind another around a central core. In this circle, the magnets themselves do not move, but there is a direction: if their north poles are directed clockwise, the magnetic whirlwind is dextrorotating, otherwise it is laevorotating. The team’s work is limited to fundamental research on the basis of the phenomenon and nature of magnetism. However, the next stage of exploiting this discovery will be to write targeted data on this minuscule scale and to find materials for constructing memory spaces. Such technology would improve not only the capacity of hard disks, but also their speed and safety, as the magnetic field serves only to record data, not read them.


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Europeans are green… but stingy

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

Do Europeans have a green conscience? The Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) study, published by Porter Novelli (FR) and the Natural Marketing Institute – NMI (USA), would suggest so. Consumers were consulted in eight European countries: Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom. This study tells us that the inhabitants of Europe are 50% more inclined to purchase ecologically  produced goods than Americans. The same study also tells us that Europeans are 32% more ready than   Americans to  opt for products carrying a bio or ecological label. On the other hand, European consumers are 25% less ready than their transatlantic cousins to pay more for these “sustainable” goods.

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Erratum

An error slipped into our special June 2007 issue on “Getting to Grips with Science”. The graphs from the Rose Study (p. 9) were not the most recent and the titles were positioned incorrectly. The new graphs can be found on the website.


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SCIENCE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

Hands-on chemistry lessons

Is there anything in common between penicillin and a post-it? Why does our hair stand on end when we take off certain items of clothing? How can solar energy be used to transform salt water into fresh water, and how can the resistance of different materials be easily tested? These are a few of the experiments proposed by the Xperimania website. Accessible in 22 languages, the website is targeted at primary and secondary school teachers and provides teaching packs for each experiment, together with a range of teaching aids (texts, photos and videos). In addition, it enables teachers to participate in online chats with experts. Pupils can include their own work on the site and participate in a competition where they could win a visit to a chemical company laboratory in 2008. An initiative of the APPE (Association of Petrochemicals Producers in Europe), the website is coordinated by European  Schoolnet, a network of 28 European education ministries. One of the aims of Xperimania is to further exchanges between schools in different countries. The website’s proposed activities focus mainly on concrete outcomes  and the field of materials. The aim is to help European teachers and pupils to understand some of the processes  involved in creating materials used in everyday objects like sport shoes or MP3 players, and to explore their ever more sophisticated properties. It is a fun way to get the younger generation interested in experimentation,   observation, materials handling… and science.

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It’s all happening at the poles and concerns everyone…

Scale model of the Princess Elisabeth research station, the firstzero-emission base to  be built in Antarctica. © IPF Scale model of the Princess Elisabeth research station, the firstzero-emission base to be built in Antarctica. © IPF

A few humans and some windmills and high tech architecture amid a glaring expanse of white. This is the future Princess Elisabeth polar station currently being built in Antarctica by the International Polar Foundation (IPF). In  2008, this research facility will host scientists from various continents who will examine the impact of climatic disturbances in situ. The research base needed to be environmentally friendly. In spite of the arctic cold, the base will use only renewable energy for its own operation (windmills, solar panels, water recycling system, a passive solar heating and cogeneration of energy) and will recycle all its waste. You can find out all about the facility and follow progress on the IPF website. The site provides numerous other links of interest to scientists (SciencePoles - www.sciencepoles.org), to schools and children (Educapoles – www.educapoles.org) and more generally to anyone involved with the environment (ExploraPoles – (www.explorapoles.org), where you can learn all the ins and outs of some scientifically oriented arctic expeditions.  One of the key missions enshrined in the IPF charter is: “To communicate and educate on the reality of climate change through the findings of polar sciences and thereby convince society to act responsibly now to ensure a sustainable world for future generations.”

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Earth’s fury

Eruption of the Krakatoa volcano (Indonesia),  April 1999. © Pascal Blondé Eruption of the Krakatoa volcano (Indonesia), April 1999. © Pascal Blondé

A trilingual exhibition currently being staged in Paris (in English, French and Italian) takes a dual approach to  natural disasters. Firstly, impressive simulation techniques are used to plunge visitors deep into a world of volcanoes and earthquakes. A spectacular circuit shows the Earth’s internal movements, as well as an explosive volcanic eruption and the movement of the tectonic plates causing it. An earthquake simulation platform enables visitors to experience the shaking of the Earth at first hand. The exhibition also includes mock-ups, modelling and hands-on simulation for visitors to reproduce the movement of the plates, understand the impact of waves, feel vibrations, and learn about laboratory experiments. A tactile and sound circuit allows partially sighted, and to a lesser extent hearing-impaired, visitors to experience these phenomena too. As its title would imply, the second approach, Living with Risk, shows visitors the importance of awareness in preventing risk. Victims, experts and rescuers recount their own experiences of earthquakes and tsunamis. Films and modelling show how they develop. Architects present earthquake-proof buildings and scientists unveil their earth science research. Simulations of rescue operations are staged from time to time (with fire-fighters and dogs rescuing fake victims buried under fake rubble). For Internet users, clear explanations of these phenomena (via downloadable documents, podcasts and MP3 files) provide a virtual visit that is just as convincing as the real thing. Until 11 May 2008.

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Young scientists, 2007 vintage

From left to right, the first-prize winners are: Abdusalam Abubakar, Florian Ostermaier, Márton Spohn and Henrike Wilms. From left to right, the first-prize winners are: Abdusalam Abubakar, Florian Ostermaier, Márton Spohn and Henrike Wilms.

14 of the 81 projects pre-selected by a Spanish panel of national judges, then whittled down by 15 international experts, were selected for the final of the 19th edition of the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, held in Valencia (Spain) in 2007. And young scientists they certainly are, as they range from only 14 to 20 years of age. “If one had to choose two essential elements for Europe’s future, they would be our young fellow citizens and our research capacity”, said Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research. “I trust that the success which they have achieved in this contest will encourage the prize-winners to continue on the path of invention and discovery.” The contest covers a variety of disciplines. A German duo, Florian Ostermaier (aged 19) and Henrike Wilms (aged 20) took joint first prize for physics. When visiting a cave with stalactites, they had observed that, every time a drop fell, it seemed to flash at a certain height. Having found no explanation for this phenomenon, they tried to reproduce it using a tap and came to the conclusion that the effect was produced solely when a source of light was placed in a very special position (in relation to both the observer and the drop of water). They succeeded in describing this phenomenon from a mathematical standpoint – something that had never been done before. The first prize for chemistry was awarded to Márton Spohn, an 18-year-old Hungarian. A student of the self-defence mechanisms used by certain plants to ward off pests, notably by releasing odours that attract their predators, he focused on the development of more environmentally friendly pesticides. The youngest prize-winner was a 16-year-old Irish mathematics enthusiast, Abdusalam Abubakar, who proposed an extension of Wiener’s attack on RSA encryption by seeking to render the encryption keys "unattackable". The 20th edition of the Young Scientists Contest will be held in Denmark in September 2008.


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Whales in the desert

Mario Urbina (University of Lima), Klaas Post (Netherlands) and Olivier Lambert (Belgium)  photographed<strong> by another member of the team, Giovanni Bianucci (Italy). © Giovanni Bianucci Mario Urbina (University of Lima), Klaas Post (Netherlands) and Olivier Lambert (Belgium) photographed by another member of the team, Giovanni Bianucci (Italy). © Giovanni Bianucci

Once upon a time, the Pisco region, situated 200 km from Lima (Peru), lay at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The movements of the Earth’s crust raised the region to 100 metres above sea level,  turning it into an exceptional treasure trove of marine fossils. Experts from Lima’s San MarcosUniversity have appealed to young European researchers to help them to study the skeletons of dolphins and whales lying beneath the sand. Some of the species discovered include strange beaked whales, characterised by significantly fewer teeth than present-day species. Only one or two pairs of teeth remain, but in fully grown males these are all the more spectacular. These beaked whales fed mainly on squid, which they would suck up and swallow whole. “The collected fossils will be studied in the laboratory in Lima when we return there in a few months”, explained expedition participant, Olivier Lambert. “They include hundreds of the oldest and best preserved beaked whales the world has ever known. Studying them will provide us with crucial information on the early stages of their evolution.” The work of this team can be followed up on the website of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique), which has had the excellent idea of reserving a virtual area for its researchers’ “adventures“. Information in four languages: FR, NL, EN, DE.

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TEACHING CORNER

The art of countersteering

© Hans Mooij, Tu Deleft(NL) © Hans Mooij, Tu Deleft(NL)

Did you know that, when cycling, to turn left you first steer to the right? Changing direction on a two-wheeler requires you to turn, for a split second, in the opposite direction. Let’s take a closer look at this astonishing phenomenon. When you cycle in a straight line, your balance is provided by four support points, two for each wheel, on either side of the part of the tyre touching the ground. To turn left, intuitively, you turn initially in the opposite direction, to the right. This brief movement of the handlebars, which lasts for just half a second, shifts the right-hand front support point towards the left-hand front support point. With the help of centrifugal and  gravitational forces, you then lean to the left – which enables you to turn – at a unique angle, determined by your speed and the diameter of the curve. Another particularity of a two-wheeler is that the front support points lie slightly behind the axis of the wheel-fork. Coming out of the turn, this configuration allows a force to emerge opposite to that exercised when the handlebar is turned, which pushes the bike to right itself spontaneously. Childish? Not as much as you might think. Mathematicians had been racking their brains to model the particular stability of the bicycle since it was invented in 1860. A team of researchers from Delft University of Technology (NL) finally cracked the problem in October 2007, after many years of perseverance. This is good news for manufacturers which have until now designed their  prototypes on a trial and error basis. From now on it will be easy to design bikes which are dimensioned to cyclists’ needs.

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Young researchers

Hugo, aged 32, mathematician

Hugo Touchette, in London. Hugo Touchette, in London.

My career path could be described  as “non-linear”, just like the random systems I study as a statistical physics researcher. During my student days, I worked on a host of different subjects, from information theory to statistical physics, by way of neurobiophysics and control theory. I visited a number of departments (physics, mechanical  engineering, computing, physiology and mathematics) in Canada, the USA and the UK. All this finally led me to London, where I work as a professor-researcher in the mathematics department of Queen Mary College.

My motive for exploring so many subjects was that I wanted to study research topics covering more than one scientific field – in this case, complex systems like neurobiological and control systems. The reason I have been able to realise my   ambition is that in Quebec, as in the rest of Canada, study grants are paid directly to students. This allows them to choose their subject and to venture into interdisciplinary fields which are off the beaten track. This type of grant allows students total freedom to travel, choose their own director of research and study abroad.

With so much  freedom, you might imagine that students would lose their way, but I don’t think this is the case. By trusting us at such an early age, we are forced to act as researchers and to take responsibility for the outcome of our  research, exactly as would be required of us as fully fledged scientists.

The British and European systems seem to differ from this model. The studies of most doctoral and post-doctoral students are subsidised, but only if students find a director of research to take responsibility for training them. Very few grants are allocated directly to students to allow them to make their own choices, especially at post-doctoral level. In my view there should be  ore such grants. I do not yet teach any PhD students but, when I do, I shall ensure that they are afforded the same  freedom to work that I have enjoyed (and continue to do).

Hugo Touchette
Lecturer in applied mathematics Queen Mary, University of London (UK)


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