Interview: Richard Leakey

Saturday, May 01, 1999
Skeletons in the Family Closet The study of old bones is in Richard Leakey's blood. Like his late fossil-hunting parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, he has unearthed the remains of hundreds of hominids throughout eastern Africa. Although Leakey lost his legs in a 1993 plane crash, he still ventures into the field for wildlife conservation work and occasional fossil digs. In 1995 he helped form Safina--Swahili for "ark"--a multiethnic political party seeking democratic reform in Kenya. Last October, Leakey resigned from Kenya's Parliament to become--for the second time--director of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Q:What do you think is the biggest problem facing the world today?
A:Global warming.

Q:If you could visit another planet, which would it be?
A:My interest in space travel would only be roused if I could visit a planet where there had been life or where there was life at the time of my visit. Fossil animals and plants and living entities intrigue me. So far, there is no obvious destination.

Q:What is your favorite music?
A:The African savanna: insects, birds, and other animals come together in sound that never fails to move me.

Q:If you could time travel, where would you go?
A:I'd like to see the world about 10,000 years ago, before agriculture had any impact on habitats and when people were just beginning to recognize their potential to change things.

Q:If you could redesign your body, what would you add?
A:I would like to have a second, independent brain that could enable me to seek fulfillment in a number of intellectual areas where I have no access.

Q:Would you like to be cloned?
A:No, but it would be quite useful to have several spare parts on hand. Kidneys and some new feet would be of immediate appeal.

Q:Which historical figure would you most like to invite to a dinner party?
A:Charles Darwin, so that I could tell him of what we now know and reassure him that he has made some of the most significant contributions ever in terms of placing us within context on this planet.

========================================================= A Beep Off the Old Block Building blocks used to be mundane toys. You stacked them up; you knocked them down. No longer. With Logiblocs, the eager--or just plain paranoid--builder can build a door alarm, a security mat, a light detector, or even a sensor that beeps when the bathtub is full. The blocks are electronic. When connected, they light up, beep, and pass signals back and forth. They're also color coded according to what they do: some send signals leaping over intervening pieces; others run simple computer-logic routines. Snap-together construction and detailed diagrams make them suitable for both budding engineers and the technologically challenged. The expandable sets, which are made in England, sell for $20 to $60.

========================================================= The China Connection By all rights the lush rain forest on Kauai shouldn't exist. The Hawaiian island's soil is nutrient-poor, yet somehow sustains plants. Oliver Chadwick, a soil scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara has discovered Kauai's secret: phosphorus blown to the island on dust from central Asia, more than 3,700 miles away. Chadwick, who has tramped through Kauai's forests for more than a decade, long suspected that prevailing westerly winds rained enriching dust on the island. But only recently, after careful comparison of soil samples from Asia with Kauai's soil, was he able to pinpoint the origin of an airborne fertilizer: a huge desert in western China called Takla Makan. "It's an enormous basin that's a tremendous source of dust," he says. Other rain forests probably depend on long-distance transport, too. Dust from the Sahara Desert, for example, may support the Amazon. Says Chadwick: "Every part of the planet is interconnected through the atmosphere."

========================================================= Found in Space: The Stuff of Life If life exists anywhere else in the universe, Max Bernstein is willing to bet that its basic biochemistry is very much like our own. Bernstein, a chemist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, recently ran an experiment with results suggesting that the universe is chock-full of the materials from which life arose on Earth 3.8 billion years ago.

The experiment, says Bernstein, simulated conditions in an interstellar dust cloud. When Bernstein beamed ultraviolet light into a chamber containing water and complex carbon molecules known to exist in interstellar clouds, the light--mimicking starlight shining on space dust--broke down and built up a number of new molecules. Among them were substances called quinones, which are necessary for even the most rudimentary life functions. "If quinones are formed in interstellar dust," he says, "they are being formed everywhere solar systems are forming."

========================================================= The Table Manners of Whales Sperm whales hunt at such great depths that no one has ever seen them feed. To learn how they eat, marine mammalogist Alexander Werth of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia dissected the mouth and tongue of a beached newborn sperm whale. The whales, he has found, suck in their prey like giant vacuum cleaners. The short, wide tongue, located at the back of the mouth, is controlled by large muscles attached to a bone just in front of the breastbone. "That suggests that the tongue is rapidly pulled back from the mouth and compressed, like a piston, to generate negative pressure and an open space into which water--and squid, sharks, or fish--rushes," Werth says. Once it gets a mouthful, "the whale creates a seal with its tongue to keep water out of the throat, swallows the food, and then expels the water back out."

========================================================= Pesky Foreign Life-forms Cost Us Billions More than 30,000 new plant and animal species have been introduced to North America since the time of Columbus. Although some, like wheat and cattle, are benign, at least 5,000 are not. Cornell ecologist David Pimentel estimates that nonindigenous plants, animals, and microbes chalk up more than $123 billion in damages every year. "If we had been able to assign monetary values to losses in biodiversity and aesthetics, the cost would undoubtedly be several times higher," Pimentel says.

Introduced Species: Purple loosestrife Damage: Invades 254,000 acres of wetlands per year, pushing out native plants and animals that eat them Annual Cost: $45 million in control and loss of animal fodder

Introduced Species: Hydrilla Damage: Chokes waterways Annual Cost: Florida alone spends $14.5 million on herbicides to control hydrilla

Introduced Species: Pigs Damage: Two million feral pigs damage grain, peanut, soybean, and other crops. They're also reservoirs for diseases like brucellosis and trichinosis Annual Cost: $200 million in population control

Introduced Species: Rats Damage: Destroy large amounts of grain, cause fires by gnawing electrical wires, pollute food, and carry several diseases. There are about 1.25 billion rats in the United States Annual Cost: $19 billion each year in damage

Introduced Species: Gypsy moth Damage: Major pests that attack and kill oak trees, among others Annual Cost: The U.S. Forest Service spends about $11 million on research and control of gypsy moths Introduced Species: Fire ants Damage: Kill baby chicks, lizards, snakes, and ground-nesting birds, mostly in southern states Annual Cost: $1 billion in extermination and damage to livestock, wildlife, and public health

Introduced Species: Cryphonectria parasitica and Ophiostoma ulmi Damage: The microbes behind chestnut-blight fungus and Dutch elm disease are just two of more than 20 non-native pathogens that attack woody plants Annual Cost: $2.1 billion in forest products lost each year nationwide

========================================================= How to Build a Better Bladder If Anthony Atala's research pans out, people suffering from the pain and incontinence of bladder disease may in a few years be able to replace their defective organs with an implantable artificial bladder grown from scratch on a polymer mold.

Atala, a pediatric surgeon at Harvard, harvested postage-stamp-size pieces of tissue from dog bladders, then coaxed the cells to divide in a dish. "Within six weeks we had enough cells to cover a football field," he says. He then coated muscle cells on the outside of a balloon-shaped mold made from a biodegradable polymer. On the inside he pasted urothelial cells--the tough cells that line the bladder's inner surface. Finally he transplanted the artificial bladders into several dogs whose bladders had been surgically removed. The replacements worked normally through the 11-month experiment.

Until now, people with bladder disease have had few options. Atala has already created a bladder with human cells and is now seeking approval to replicate the experiment in people.

========================================================= Bumpasaurus Countless books and magazines--including this one--feature drawings of dinosaurs. But truth be told, no one really knows what the beasts looked like. Fossil skin samples are extremely rare--only a dozen or so have ever been found. George Basabilvazo, a University of New Mexico graduate student, recently discovered the fossil skin shown here, along with the bones of a duck-billed dinosaur. It is perhaps the best specimen known. Unlike the smooth-skinned animals that have been imagined by artists, this dinosaur was as warty as a toad.

Basabilvazo uncovered the 70-million-year-old fossil just west of Deming, New Mexico. Paleontologist Spencer Lucas of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, which houses the fossil, speculates that the dinosaur's body was swept into a lake and covered by silt, which preserved it. The dime-size, mushroomlike bumps visible on the skin increased the skin's surface area and might have allowed the dinosaur to shed excess body heat more quickly, he says. Lucas laments the rareness of dinosaur-skin fossils. "If we could understand more about their skin, we might gain more insight into how diverse dinosaurs were."

========================================================= Museum Review: The Edison National Historic Site On a hook in a long brick building in West Orange, New Jersey, hangs a stained lab coat. Bottles half-filled with chemicals crowd the rough wooden shelves and stone-topped tables. The room has an expectant air, as if the chemist might hurry back any minute. But it's been over 68 years since Thomas Edison took off that lab coat. "Mr. Edison was working here until his last illness, trying to find a domestic source of rubber for his friend Henry Ford," says park ranger Maryanne Gerbauckas, superintendent of the Edison National Historic Site. She points to a wooden frame supporting a dry plant, 14 feet tall. "He thought goldenrod might work. This is how far he got." She holds out a fragment of bumpy, brownish material, like cheese left too long in the broiler.

In its glory days, 10,000 people worked at Edison's West Orange research facility and nearby factory complex. He earned half his 1,093 patents during those four decades. Here he perfected the phonograph, the movie projector, and the fluoroscope. The world's first known movie was shot in a corner of his precision machine shop (it showed a young boy juggling Indian clubs). But perhaps his most important invention was the industrial research and design lab. Here, for the first time, engineers, technicians, and inventors devoted their working hours to collaborative research. Edison's widow left the complex and their house to the Parks Department. The site, which lacks air conditioning, humidity control, and adequate heating, was recently listed as one of the nation's "most endangered historic places." Papers are in danger of mildewing and flaking, wax recordings of melting away. In early June the site will shut down for extensive restoration; it will reopen in the spring of 2001, with long-term plans for a new building to house its 5 million papers and some of its 400,000 artifacts. ("Everything here is an artifact," says Gerbauckas, hefting a box of rusty turn-of-the-century nails.)

High-tech exhibits incorporating the latest in audiovisual devices--descended from his own inventions--will guide visitors through Edison's world. "We want to give people insight into his vitality, not turn it into a science center," says Ralph Appelbaum, who's in charge of the new exhibits. The top two floors of the main lab building, now closed to the public, will be repaired and opened. "There's a strong emotional tug to return the photo lab to its original state," says Gerbauckas. "It still smells like a darkroom." She also hopes to display the contents of the horn room, where Edison's early speakers line up like gigantic, curly witches' hats. In the meantime, the site is decidedly low tech--or rather, high tech in the style of a century ago. Visitors follow friendly rangers in Smokey the Bear hats through Edison's three-tiered library, with its statue of the Genius of Electricity holding aloft a lightbulb while he crushes a gas lamp underfoot. They marvel at the stockroom, filled with natural materials like elephant skin, whale baleen, and human hair. And they tour the machine shop, where the only objects made of modern material are the vinyl runners underfoot. Who knows--if Edison had only lived a little longer, they might have been made of goldenrod.

========================================================= Africa on the Internet As recently as 1996, it was almost impossible to get on the Internet from most places in Africa. Today only Somalia is without access. Satellite and fiber-optic links have made the expansion possible, with funding from development agencies and investors. "Two years ago, we brought African ministers of communication to a meeting," says Raymond Akwule, professor of telecommunications at George Mason University in Virginia. "And for two hours we had them surf the Web. The moment they got on, it awakened them right away to the power of this information."

========================================================= Eine Kleine Tube Musik Werner Lauterborn probably never would have known he had invented a new musical instrument if it hadn't been for his grad student, Georg Mueller. The two physicists, who work at the University of Goettingen in Germany, were studying pressure waves inside a heated tube when it occurred to Mueller, a musician, to explore the tube's oompah potential.

The metal tube had been making sounds during experiments, and Mueller thought that he could coax music from it. The first inch or so of the tube is filled with 20 metal plates. One side of each plate is wired and heated; the other side contains cooling water-filled tubes. By alternately heating and cooling the plates, the physicists make the foot-long tube vibrate, producing a sound something like a pipe organ. Mueller drilled holes in the tube so a musician can play the instrument the way he would a flute. The heating unit serves as an amplifier, constantly increasing the tube's vibrations. Says Lauterborn: "You can use it without big speakers and still make enormous sounds."
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