Science takes center stage at conference in San Francisco


duster, petit

Sociology professor Troy Duster, right, with Charles Petit, science writer for U.S. News & World Report

21 February 2001 | The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting last week in San Francisco brought together more than 750 speakers, including scientists and policymakers from around the world. Hundreds of prominent scientists led 140 multidisciplinary sessions featuring new research on a wide range of topics — including obesity; addiction and the brain; stress and human longevity; new discoveries in astronomy; the impact of human activity on aquatic and marine environments; and the globalization of science.

The convention of internationally acclaimed scientists convened as “Science” magazine published a definitive and historic paper on the sequencing of the human genome. As scientists begin to gain unprecedented access to the genetic instructions governing life, conference luminaries heralded the use of genome maps for many purposes.

Berkeley scientists moderated or participated in a variety of talks on genomics, art, math, nanotechnology, biology chemistry, computer science and sociology. Included on this page are some highlights of their contributions.

Berkeley scientists shine in AAAS awards ceremony
Of the seven awards and prizes for scientists announced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at last week’s annual meeting, three honored Berkeley faculty.

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Lisa Pruitt received the association’s Mentor Award, honoring members who have mentored significant numbers of students from underrepresented groups.

Pruitt was named “in recognition of her exceptional mentoring, community activism, and efforts to diversify the talent pool in materials and bioengineering.”

The Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award went to Howard Schachman, professor of the graduate school from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in the College of Letters & Science. He was honored for his advocacy of scientific freedom and the responsible conduct of research.

Professor of Genetics Gerald Rubin, also of molecular and cell biology, received the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize for a paper on the sequencing of the fruit fly genome published last March in Science. He shares the prize with about 100 co-authors, including Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics Corp.

“This collaborative effort by academic and industry researchers was considered by our committee to represent a landmark event in the effort to understand the organization of the hereditary material at the finest structural level,” the association said.

Rubin directs the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project Sequencing Center, based at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Also present to receive the award were Susan Celniker, co-director of the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project, and Mark Adams of Celera. Rubin’s research group will split the $5,000 prize with Venter’s group.

Postdoctoral researcher uncovers the barrier between the quantum and classical worlds
Like Alice stepping through the looking glass, the journey into the quantum realm of subatomic particles is fraught with strange phenomena.

Now, new research indicates that the looking glass is more than a helpful analogy – there is indeed a perceptible barrier between the large-scale world we know and understand and the wacky quantum world of half-dead, half-alive cats and particles that can be in two places at once.

Scientists previously thought the transition between the two realms was gradual, but a computer scientist working at Berkeley, has proven the existence of an actual turning point where classical behavior stops and quantum behavior starts.

Just as water freezes to become ice, the classical world shifts to quantum behavior at a specific energy threshold, at least for a certain type of quantum system. Controlling the transition could lead to the construction of robust quantum computers, said Dorit Aharonov, who made the discovery while working last year as a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley. She is now a faculty member in computer science and engineering at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The research emerged from work Aharonov conducted with Michael Ben-Or of Hebrew University on a theoretical model of a quantum computer that could operate in the presence of noise from the classical world.

Noise wreaks havoc with quantum computers by interfering with the delicate quantum bits, or qubits, that perform the calculations. Unlike conventional computer bits (the 0s and 1s that make up the data in your computer), qubits are spinning subatomic particles that can assume the value of 0 or 1 simultaneously. This superposition of states, called entanglement, greatly expands the potential for super-fast parallel computing. But noise from the outside world knocks the qubits off their spin, causing them to decouple into ordinary classical particles.

See for a complete story on these findings.

Scientists work toward complete tree of life for green plants
The highly successful Deep Green project to construct a “tree of life” for the green plants has ended, but it has seeded new projects to strengthen the branches and root the tree more firmly in new genetic and fossil data.

Among these projects is “Deep Gene,” headed by Berkeley botanist Brent Mishler, and “Deep Time,” headed by Doug Soltis of the University of Florida. The National Science Foundation has agreed to fund the projects with $500,000 each over the next five years.

The success of Deep Green also has emboldened NSF to float the idea of a much larger project — generating the definitive tree of life for everything, from bacteria to bats, fungi to flowering plants. NSF director Rita Colwell calls Deep Green one of the best investments the foundation has made, Mishler said.

Mishler, a spokesman for Deep Green, is director of UC Berkeley’s University and Jepson Herbaria and a professor of integrative biology in the College of Letters & Science.

Deep Green has contributed to more than 100 research papers, Mishler said, the latest of which, in the Feb. 1 issue of Nature, nailed down the sister group of the seed plants. The work, co-written by Kathleen Pryer and Harald Schneider of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and Alan Smith and Ray Cranfill of the UC Berkeley Herbarium, provided very strong evidence that ferns and horsetails are one another’s closest relatives and the group most closely related to the seed plants.

“It clarifies one big chunk of the tree,” Mishler said. “We haven’t completed the whole tree, but these papers one at a time have dealt with all aspects of the green part of the tree of life.”

See for a complete story on these findings.

Toddlers naturally see cause and effect in the world around them
Psychologists once thought little children were only attracted to shapes and colors — the superficial appearance of things. Now, a Berkeley psychologist has evidence that two- and three-year–olds are driven by much deeper curiosities and have a natural inclination to understand the world in terms of cause and effect.

This discovery by professor of psychology Alison Gopnik challenges long-standing beliefs, dating from the famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, about the learning capacities of preschoolers. It carries forward her research on the minds of toddlers, published last year in her book “The Scientist and the Crib,” which compared the mental processes of little children to those of scientists.

In new findings, Gopnik defined more precisely just how toddlers’ minds work.

“Children are driven to explain what is going on, how a seed grows into a plant, how a pedal makes the bicycle move. When they actively explore objects, we believe they are trying to understand underlying causal powers,” said Gopnik.

“You may not recognize it at first, but tiny children have the ability to see beneath the surface of things,” said Gopnik. “They know inherently — or rather they are driven to find out — that everything that glitters is not gold.”

See for a complete story on these findings.

Gauging the threat of organic pollutants
Thomas McKone, professor of environmental health science and a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, has developed a new tool for gauging the potential harm of persistent pollutants like dioxins.

The method, called the dose fraction, compares the amount of pollutant taken up by the human population to the amount emitted into the environment from smokestacks and other sources. The higher the dose fraction, the greater the threat to human health.

Persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, are of great concern to public health experts. POPs resist degradation, can migrate thousands of miles from where they were produced, and can be ingested and stored in the fatty tissues of fish, animals and eventually humans. Of the POPs, dioxins are among the most potent cancer-causing agents known.

Policy makers can use the dose fraction to sort through the thousands of chemicals introduced annually to commercial use to find those that could pose an environmental hazard, McKone said.

See for a complete story on these findings.


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