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Science & Technology 10/21/02
Beyond Pluto, strange new worlds

"Biggest thing since Pluto" may not sound like much. But the 800-mile-wide, very far-out member of the sun's family announced last week suggests that even bigger worlds may be hiding in the solar system's exurbs. Caltech astronomers Michael Brown and Chad Trujillo call their find Quaoar (pronounced KWA-o-are), after a god of Los Angeles-area Indians. They spotted it in June with a wide-angle telescope on California's Mount Palomar and confirmed its size–about half that of Pluto–with the Hubble Space Telescope. The frozen orb follows a circular orbit almost 4 billion miles from the sun–nearly 30 percent farther than Pluto. It's in the Kuiper Belt, a swarm of millions of icy bodies that was found in the past 10 years. Most are small, but astronomers have identified some that approach Quaoar's size–and there could be others as big as Pluto, now considered the largest Kuiper object. "What we once thought was the outer edge of the solar system is just the door to a whole new section," Brown says. – Charles W. Petit

Pretty teeth, dear

The pink, foot-long marine bloodworm Glycera dibranchiata bears no resemblance to Jaws, the James Bond villain-until you get to its four tiny teeth. Just as Jaws had teeth of steel, the worm appears to toughen its chompers by adding a touch of copper to the tip. It's the first organism known to strengthen a body part with copper, researchers say in last week's Science. Calcium or silicon are more common constituents of the minerals in tooth and bone, says Helga Lichtenegger of the University of California-Santa Barbara. She speculates that the copper may have a second role, because the metal can catalyze chemical reactions. The worms are predators with a poisonous bite, and the copper might activate the venom as it passes through the sharp, syringelike teeth and into prey. - Nell Boyce


Less than truthful

A panel of leading scientists says that instead of catching spies, polygraph exams keep honest folks out of sensitive jobs. Tens of thousands of employees at federal agencies annually face the scientifically unproven exams to determine whether they are security risks. While bad guys may learn to fool the machines-which measure respiration, blood pressure, and pulse-factors such as stress and exertion can cause good guys to fail. The report, from the National Research Council, does see promise in future lie-detection schemes based on such technologies as functional MRI, which maps brain activity.

The FBI and CIA, both major polygraph users, are reviewing the findings. But Carnegie Mellon statistician Stephen Fienberg, the panel chairman, is worried that the report may get shelved. "If we don't face up to this now," he says, "in 10 years people will again be asking: 'Why are they still doing this?' " - Dana Hawkins

Taming of the flu

Scientists who want to reconstruct the flu virus that killed 50 million people in 1918 to learn why it was so deadly got a dose of reassurance last week. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that today's antiflu drugs could treat accidental infections.

Christopher Basler of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and his colleagues took a mouse flu virus and engineered it to have three 1918 flu genes. They then infected mice and tissue cultures with the modified viruses and tested several drugs against them. The drugs' success means that scientists working with a resurrected virus could take them as a safety precaution. It might also reassure critics of such work, who fear that bioterrorists could unleash the virus. - N.B.


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