Jan. 22, 2004 – Vol. 23 No. 8

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    In the News

    The Chronicle’s biweekly column In the News offers a digest of commentary and quotations by a few of the University faculty members, students and alumni who have been headlining the news in recent weeks. Chicago faculty members are some of the most frequently quoted experts, so space allows publishing references to only selected examples. To read many of the full newspaper articles mentioned in this column, visit the In the News column at the University News Office Web site: http://www-news.uchicago.edu/.

    Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and the College, and the research he led that resulted in the Chicago Health and Social Life Survey, were the subjects of numerous stories published in newspapers and broadcast on television and radio. The study, which produced results to be published in the book The Sexual Organization of the City, surveyed residents in four Chicago neighborhoods. “Chicagoans are destined to spend half their lives as single people, and half their single years will be spent alone. Yet, we already know that sexual well-being is very much associated with happiness and the quality of life. The implications for the future are troubling,” Laumann told the Chicago Tribune in its Friday, Jan. 9 issue. Other news media that carried stories on the survey were NBC’s Today Show, CBS Radio Network, WBEZ-FM Radio, B-96 Radio and Channel 32 in Chicago. The Daily Southtown and the Chicago Sun-Times also reported on the survey.

    News of NASA’s Stardust spacecraft mission and the landing of NASA’s Spirit rover on Mars prompted much media coverage recently, and two University researchers—Anthony Tuzzolino and Thanasis Economou—were involved in the technology of the missions. The New York TimesAssociated Press (Wednesday, Jan. 7) carried stories on the Stardust mission, which captured dust particles during its flight near the comet Wild 2. The dust particles being collected by the spacecraft are believed to be primitive leftovers from the formation of the solar system. Economou, who helped design the technique being used for the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer for the Spirit rover and who recently joined Tuzzolino at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to monitor the missions, described the close encounter between Stardust and the comet. “It is something like driving a car during a severe hail storm in Chicago—but it’s a hundred times worse.” Stories on the missions also were reported in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. Both Tuzzolino and Economou are Senior Scientists in the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute.

    Two recent stories reporting on mad cow disease, the quest to find its preventive vaccine and how Americans are reacting to the first known case of the disease, quoted two University researchers. A story that appeared on the front page of the Thursday, Jan. 1 Chicago Tribune quoted Raymond Roos, Chairman and Professor of Neurology, and a front-page story published in the Friday, Jan. 2 Chicago Tribune quoted Jim Mastrianni, Assistant Professor in Neurology, who studies prions, the infectious proteins that cause mad cow disease. “The problem is that this isn’t a typical infection,” said Mastrianni. “Normally treatments for infections basically disrupt the cell wall or outer membrane of an organism. Here you have just a protein, one that’s resistant to acids, heat, just about anything.”

    Research conducted by Bruce Lahn, Assistant Professor in Human Genetics and Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, and other geneticists at the University was reported on in the Wednesday, Jan. 14 New York Times. Lahn and his fellow researchers studied the ASPM gene, which helps determine the size of the human brain. They found that the gene has been under steady pressure, exerted by natural selection, over the past 18 million years. Evolutionary changes to the ASPM protein in the gene correlate with a steady increase in the size of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive function. According to Lahn, evolution has been more intense in the five million years since humans split from chimpanzees. “There has been a sweep every 300,000 to 400,000 years, with the last sweep occurring between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago,” said Lahn, referring to a genetic change that sweeps through a population and endows everyone with the same improved version of a gene.

    The Economist published an article on Steven Levitt, the Alvin H. Baum Professor in Economics, highlighting the impressive research of his young career, which won him the American Economic Association’s John Bates Clark Medal. The author wrote of Levitt: “He has distinguished himself not with fancy theory or one or two particularly important breakthroughs, but with a series of remarkably wide-ranging and ingenious empirical investigations.”

    New research conducted by the father-daughter team of David Mao, Visiting Scientist in Geophysical Sciences, and Wendy Mao, a graduate student in Geophysical Sciences, was the subject of two articles that appeared Thursday, Jan. 8, in The Washington Times’ online publication and Tuesday, Jan. 13, in the Chicago Sun-Times. In a series of experiments, the Maos synthesized a new class of compounds that offer a possible alternative for the technologically useful storage of hydrogen, a potential fuel source. The compound with the most promise, hydrogen clathrate hydrate, was synthesized at pressures between 20,000 and 30,000 atmospheres and temperatures of minus 207 degrees Fahrenheit using a hydrogen-water compound. The Maos used a device that replicated pressures found far below the Earth’s surface.

    Observational evidence showing that globular clusters may trigger star formation was found by Kyle Cudworth, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and the College, and Richard Rees (Ph.D.,’95) in their study of the small star cluster NGC 6231 and the larger star cluster NGC 6397. This evidence provides astronomers with a new hypothesis on how stars develop. Cudworth and Rees discovered that the smaller cluster (NGC 6231) is located at the exact spot in the Milky Way in which the larger cluster (NGC 6397) passed through 5 million years ago. The Chicago Sun-Times reported on the discovery in its Tuesday, Jan. 6 edition. “Can we prove the larger cluster created the smaller cluster? No,” said Cudworth. “But we can say they were there at the same time, and [the larger cluster] could have done it.”

    Because of the efforts and research of alumna Bonnie Lilienfeld (A.B.,’84), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a piece of Chicago’s history in its new “America on the Move” exhibition, dedicated to the history of American transportation. Lilienfeld, a member of the Smithsonian’s curatorial staff, researched and developed the display that features the Chicago Transit Authority’s retired “L” car 6719. A large portion of the new exhibition is devoted to Chicago and the role transit played in maintaining the city’s vitality and viability in the post-World War II era. The Chicago Tribune featured Lilienfeld and the creative process that led to the Smithsonian exhibition in its Tuesday, Jan. 6 Tempo section.

    The Oriental Institute’s collection of ancient Iraq artifacts on display in the Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery was the subject of a New York Times arts feature published Tuesday, Jan. 6. The article described the high quality of the University’s collection as well as the University of Pennsylvania’s collection in its traveling exhibition, “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur” (The Oriental Institute exhibited “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur” in October 2000). Both collections are considered especially valuable because the artifacts were discovered during archaeological expeditions at ancient sites, when Middle Eastern governments and Western archaeologists equally shared the discoveries under the pre-1960s system of partage. “What we have here is irreplaceable,” said McGuire Gibson, Professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, describing the Oriental Institute’s collection. “It could not be reconstructed today. Even if by some miracle you could go out and discover comparable sites and make comparable finds, you would not be able to bring them out.” The article also quoted Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute, and reported on the growing interest in the two exhibitions since the looting of the Iraq Museum during the U.S. invasion of Baghdad.