Why Rembrandt and da Vinci may have painted themselves with skewed eyes

A strongly dominant eye, not
an eye disorder, may explain why Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt van Rijn painted
themselves with misaligned eyes.

Previous research suggested
that the famous artists may have had a literal artist’s eye —
an eye disorder called exotropia in which one eye turns outward. Exotropia
makes it harder for the brain to use input from both eyes to see in 3-D, so it
must rely on 2-D cues to see depth. This gives people with the disorder a
“flattened” view of the world, which could give artists who work on flat
surfaces like canvas an advantage.

But using trigonometry and
photographs of people looking into a mirror, David Guyton, an ophthalmologist
at Johns Hopkins University, and his colleague Ahmed Shakarchi, conclude that the artists could have had eyes that faced straight ahead
after all
. The researchers published
their analysis November 27 in JAMA

The brains of people who have
a strongly dominant eye will favor whatever that eye sees. So when people with
a strongly dominant eye look closely in a mirror — like, say, artists leaning in to get details needed
to paint a self-portrait —
they could perceive that they have exotropia even if that’s not true, Guyton

For instance, a person with
a strongly dominant eye and eyes six centimeters apart who was sitting 16.5
centimeters from a mirror would wrongly perceive that the weaker eye is turned
outward at a 10.3-degree angle, the researchers found. That angle is consistent
with the eye angle portrayed in some artworks painted by or modeled after da Vinci.

“It is a clever idea,” says
Christopher Tyler, a visual neuroscientist at the City University of London
whose previous analysis of six pieces of art — some by da Vinci himself and some for which it’s
suspected he was the model —
suggested that da Vinci had exotropia (SN: 10/22/18).
In many of those works, the eyes appear misaligned.

For the geometry of the
strong eye explanation to work, Tyler says, the artist would have to sit
“unrealistically close” to the mirror, especially for some of Rembrandt’s half-length,
self-portraits or for the painting Salvator
, which da Vinci may have partially modeled after himself. And it
doesn’t fully explain why statues that were sculpted in da Vinci’s likeness by
other artists also show apparent exotropia, Tyler says.

Bevil Conway, a
neurobiologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., says both
explanations are plausible. A common trick among artists is to shut one eye and
hold out a thumb to get a sense of how a three-dimensional world looks in 2-D. Both
exotropia and a strongly dominant eye could have a similar “flattening” effect,
which could have helped da Vinci and Rembrandt bring a 3-D world to life on flat

“The debate is still open,
and the answer is that we can never know,” Conway says.

Stealthy robots with microphones could improve maps of ocean noise

slowly and stealthily through the Pacific Ocean, a robotic glider with a
microphone captured a cacophony of sounds from ships, whales and underwater

glider’s journey, across 458 kilometers off the Washington and Oregon coast and
down to 650 meters, demonstrates that gliders could be effective tools to help map ocean noise levels, researchers report November 20 in PLOS ONE. Separate audio recordings from
nearby microphones dangled from the water’s surface confirmed the accuracy of
the glider’s 18 days of recordings in July and August 2012.

Stationary microphones can’t catch the full array of sounds throughout large swathes of sea or at various depths in the water column the way a glider can, though, the researchers say. Ocean noise is “something we need to measure and try to better understand why that’s happening, where it’s happening, and what the impacts are” to wildlife and marine ecosystems, says oceanographer Joe Haxel, at Oregon State University’s coastal campus in Newport. For example, previous research has shown that Navy sonar (SN: 3/25/11) and passing ships can create noise pollution that harms marine animals (SN: 2/13/18), impacting social behaviors and foraging habits.

scientists eavesdrop underwater with hydrophones, waterproof microphones that
are moored or dangled from the surface, or mounted on large ships that can drown
out other sounds and scare away marine life.

glider’s slow speed —
just over 1 kilometer per hour —
and quiet movement allow it to sneak through the water picking up ambient
noises. A pump moves oil in and out of the glider’s bladder, affecting its buoyancy
and causing it to float up or sink down in the water column. Those depth
changes propelled the glider forward on a slow, meandering path.

glider is good because it’s noninvasive,” says Haxel. “It’s coming in on
stealth mode.”

Electric charges on dust grains may help explain how planets are born

Growing up is hard to do, especially for
baby planets. Now, scientists may have uncovered the solution to one puzzle
about protoplanetary growing pains.

An obstacle to planetary formation,
known as the bouncing barrier, hinders the clumping of dust particles that
eventually form planets. But electric charge can provide extra stickiness that those
cosmic motes need
for clumps to keep
growing, scientists report December 9 in Nature
. Testing that explanation required vigorously shaking thousands of
small glass beads and catapulting them more than 100 meters skyward in an
attempt to mimic planets’ birthplaces, protoplanetary disks.

In the pancakes of dust and gas known as
protoplanetary disks, the seeds of planets collide and stick, forming larger and
larger clumps. But, according to experiments and simulations, once particles are
a millimeter or so in size, their growth stalls as they bounce off one another,
rather than sticking. It’s a quandary that has stymied attempts to simulate how
planets form.

Somehow, the dust particles overcome the
bouncing barrier, resulting in a cosmos peppered with a wide variety of worlds (SN: 1/8/19).
“We see exoplanets, so there must be a way to get bigger particles,” says
experimental astrophysicist Tobias Steinpilz of the University of
Duisburg-Essen in Germany.

So Steinpilz and colleagues set out to
form analogs of planetary seeds. Instead of protoplanetary dust grains, the
researchers used glass beads, each a bit less than half a millimeter in
diameter. Collisions between those beads would mimic colliding dust particles
in the protoplanetary disk. But there was one catch: Earth’s gravity. “That
overpowers everything we want to see,” Steinpilz says.

glass beads
Identical glass beads clump together due to their electric charges, as shown in a simulation (top) and an experiment (bottom).T. Steinpilz et al/Nature Physics 2019

So the researchers launched their experiment
with a catapult inside the 120-meter-tall Bremen Drop Tower in Germany, letting the apparatus containing the beads, a camera and
other measurement equipment, fly upward and back down. During its approximately
nine-second flight, the device was effectively weightless.

Prior to the launch, the researchers
shook the beads, mimicking the collisions that particles in a protoplanetary
disk would experience over time. That movement caused the beads to build up electric
charges, some negative and some positive. When the beads went weightless, they formed
clumps — some consisting of over a thousand beads — thanks to electric forces
between the charged beads, the researchers determined.

The results “clearly show that electrostatic
forces help grow beyond the bouncing barrier in lab conditions,” says
astronomer Richard Booth of the University of Cambridge. But, he notes, “there
is a question of trying to extrapolate these lab conditions to what we see in
protoplanetary disks.” In particular, protoplanetary disks consist of dust
grains made of natural materials rather than glass.

Steinpilz’s team also performed shaking
experiments with basalt spheres, which are more similar to the particles in a
real protoplanetary disk. Basalt particles charged up even more than the glass
beads, the team found, suggesting that the effect might be even stronger in
protoplanetary disks.

Other barriers remain for developing planets,
though. High-speed particles, for example, can collide and break larger clumps apart,
so growing up still takes grit.

What happens when governments crack down on scientists just doing their jobs?

On a sunny
day in March 2016, Turkish forensic physician Şebnem Korur Fincanci drove into
Cizre, a town in southeastern Turkey. The government had just lifted a 79-day
curfew meant to help the Turkish military rout out members of the separatist
PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkey has long fought to keep insurgents
from creating a separate Kurdish country, and has designated the PKK as a
terrorist organization.

Like most
people outside of Cizre, Fincanci had no idea what had transpired during the
lockdown. She arrived to a devastated city.

The air, she
says, smelled of burnt flesh. Houses were riddled with bullet holes, the
furniture inside burned or bashed with sledgehammers. Residents led her to
three bombed-out buildings. Fincanci entered one and saw within the basement
rubble a jawbone and a pair of eyeglasses. She could immediately tell that the
jawbone was a child’s.

Fincanci had
not brought her forensic tools. She had assumed that this visit was
preliminary, a time to talk with Cizre residents about their medical needs. So,
she snapped pictures of the bone, the glasses and the surrounding debris with
her cell phone. Residents later confirmed that the building had been home to a
young family.

Cizre, Turkey images
After a 79-day curfew was lifted in Cizre, Turkey, in March 2016, forensic physician Şebnem Korur Fincanci found demolished buildings (left) and walls filled with bullet holes (center). In one residential building’s basement, she found a burnt jaw (right) from a child thought to have died there.All: Ş. Fincanci
Cizre, Turkey images
After a 79-day curfew was lifted in Cizre, Turkey, in March 2016, forensic physician Şebnem Korur Fincanci found demolished buildings (left) and walls filled with bullet holes (center). In one residential building’s basement, she found a burnt jaw (right) from a child thought to have died there.All: Ş. Fincanci

A few days
later, Fincanci wrote a report and posted it on the website of the Human Rights
Foundation of Turkey, a volunteer organization she helped found in 1990. She
also sent the report to Turkey’s internal affairs office. Fincanci wrote that
the military had committed atrocities against innocent civilians. She demanded
a full investigation. Instead, in June 2016, the government charged her with
spreading terrorist propaganda. “I was arrested and sent to prison,” Fincanci

Weak regimes

Across the
ages, scientists have come under fire for all manner of offense, often tied to
the work they do. Chinese astronomers Hi and Ho were executed over 4,000 years
ago, according to lore, for failing to predict a solar eclipse. In 1633, the
Roman Catholic Church convicted astronomer Galileo Galilei of heresy for stating
that the Earth revolves around the sun — a concept antithetical to the church
doctrine that put the Earth at the center of the universe. He spent the
remaining nine years of his life under house arrest.

In the United
States, during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, government officials
monitored and interrogated academics seen as Communist sympathizers. Princeton
University physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leader of the Manhattan Project,
was accused of being a national security risk and lost his security clearance.

In the aftermath of World War II, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so that atrocities of the Holocaust would never be replayed. The document stated that every person everywhere has the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, the right to work and education, and the freedom of opinion and expression.

declaration provided a blueprint for how people around the world ought to be
treated, yet human rights abuses, against scientists and others, have

The Cold
War’s end in 1991 led to a shift from clearly totalitarian regimes where
citizens had few personal and political freedoms to countries that appear
democratic but exhibit varying levels of authoritarian control, says Andrew
Anderson, executive director of Front Line Defenders, a human rights
organization based in Dublin.

The blurred
line between authoritarianism and democracy in Turkey under President Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan is a case in point, Anderson says. Scientists almost anywhere
can find themselves under fire as even staunch democracies, including Greece
and the United States, struggle to balance state interests and academic
freedoms. Some scientists are attacked for sharing their research and others
stumble into dangerous situations while doing their jobs, such as doctors
accused of providing medical care to protesters or rebels. Others feel
compelled to use their standing as public figures to resist and expose

Şebnem Korur Fincanci
Forensic physician Şebnem Korur Fincanci faces 2.5 years in prison for calling for an end to violence in Turkey.Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Physicians for Human Rights

Quantifying the number of scientists whose human rights are under threat is challenging, but a November 19 report from Scholars at Risk, a nonprofit organization that helps persecuted academics, provides some context. From September 1, 2018, to August 31, 2019, the organization documented 324 attacks on students and academics, including scientists, from 56 countries, says Scholars at Risk advocacy director Clare Robinson. The report also points to countries with increasing restrictions on academics, including India, China, Sudan, Brazil and for the fourth year in a row, Turkey, where thousands of academics have been charged with disloyalty, treason and terrorism.

“Thanks to international solidarity and support, they couldn’t hold us for a long time. They had to release us.”

Şebnem Korur Fincanci

professional organizations and human rights groups have been mounting
international campaigns to help persecuted colleagues. Numerous groups agitated
on Fincanci’s behalf, circulating petitions, sending letters and holding
demonstrations. But even when advocacy helps free scientists from detention,
the accused can find their professional and personal lives upended. Some must
live in exile, cut off from their support systems and their work. Others wind
up unemployed.

After 10 days
in jail, Fincanci and two detained journalists were released to await trial.
“Thanks to international solidarity and support, they couldn’t hold us for a
long time,” she says. “They had to release us.” The propaganda charges were
dropped in July. Fincanci now faces 2.5 years in prison for signing a petition
along with more than 1,000 scholars to demand an end to the fighting between Turkish
forces and the PKK.

Persecuted for doing a job

In April 2016, disaster medicine researcher Ahmadreza Djalali was in Tehran to help develop a training program for Iranian hospitals on emergency responses to disasters. The invitation, from the University of Tehran and Shiraz University, was not unusual. Djalali, an Iranian-born scientist living in Sweden and affiliated with research centers in Sweden, Belgium and Italy, visited research centers and universities in Iran a few times a year. But this time, officials from the country’s Ministry of Intelligence detained Djalali and placed him in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where political opponents of the Iranian government are often held. In October 2017, under charges that he was a spy for Israel, Djalali was sentenced to death.

“He [is] just a researcher. He is innocent and didn’t do anything against his country.”

Vida Mehrannia, wife of Ahmadreza Djalali

Djalali was
targeted for refusing to help with Iran’s espionage efforts, says his wife,
Vida Mehrannia. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence contacted Djalali twice, she
says. In 2012, officials asked him to work for Iranian military and intelligence
centers, and in 2014, they asked him to cooperate with Iran’s intelligence
service to spy on European counterterrorism operations. Djalali, she says,
refused both requests.

says Djalali was tortured and placed in solitary confinement in the early part
of his detainment. Under duress, he signed multiple false confessions, which
were later used in his conviction. His lawyer was forbidden from attending the
proceedings, and the judge did not review any of Djalali’s documents.

Mehrannia, who
is in Sweden with the couple’s two children, says her husband’s health is
failing. He has lost 20 kilograms, and blood tests indicate that he may have
leukemia. Numerous organizations and scientists have come out in support of
Djalali, including through a 2018 letter signed by 124 Nobel laureates sent to
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“He [is] just
a researcher,” Mehrannia says of her husband. “He is innocent and didn’t do
anything against his country.”

Ahmadreza Djalali
Ahmadreza Djalali went to Tehran to teach disaster preparedness and was sentenced to death as a spy. Courtesy of V. Mehrannia

Djalali’s case is extreme, scientists can face peril when their work appears to
contradict or impede government efforts. As president of Greece’s independent
statistics office, ELSTAT, from 2010 to 2015, economist and statistician
Andreas Georgiou confirmed that the country had been underreporting the size of
its deficit to avoid economic sanctions by the European Union. In particular,
he determined that the 2009 deficit was 15.4 percent of GDP, not 13.6 percent
as previously reported.

Although EU
officials have repeatedly validated Georgiou’s numbers, in January 2013, he was
charged with making false statements about the 2009 government deficit — a
felony in Greece that carries a possible life sentence. While he was ultimately
cleared of that charge in March 2019, other charges are ongoing. “They’re using
statistics as a political weapon,” says Georgiou, now a lecturer in statistical
ethics at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Andreas Georgiou
Economist and statistician Andreas Georgiou has paid a high price for revealing that Greece had been misreporting the size of its deficit.COURTESY OF A. GEORGIOU

The list goes on. In August, Ricardo Galvão was fired as director of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who had begun to open more Amazon rainforest to mining and other commercial activities, disagreed with an institute report showing that deforestation from April to June 2019 was almost 25 percent higher than during the same period the year before. And on November 7, the New York Times reported that Russian security forces, masked and carrying automatic weapons, raided the country’s prestigious Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow and interrogated the director for six hours about a purported plot to export glass with military applications. The institute’s governing council derided the raid, saying in a statement that such actions “are impossible to imagine in a civilized country in which law enforcement agencies concern themselves with real, not invented, problems.”

Medical personnel face risks just by providing medical care to people who are seen as hostile to a governing party. During the ongoing crisis in Syria, the government and its Russian allies have launched 583 attacks on medical facilities, with 912 medical professionals killed, between March 2011 and August 2019, according to the New York City–based advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights. Those numbers do not account for medical staff who sustained injuries but survived or fled the country, says Susannah Sirkin, the organization’s director of policy.

In Sudan last December, when protestors demonstrated against the government of then-President Omar al-Bashir, the military responded with force against both the protestors and those rushing to their aid. Physicians for Human Rights reported in April that it found support for allegations that police and security forces intentionally attacked at least seven Sudanese medical facilities. The group’s independent assessment of postmortem records supports claims that police shot physician Babiker Abdul Hamid in the chest in January as he tried to explain that doctors were simply treating the injured. “He said he was a doctor, and he was shot point blank,” reported one eyewitness. Sudan has claimed that he was shot by “infiltrators.”

How a
government treats people who offer medical care can serve as a litmus test for
academic freedom, Sirkin says. “It’s never a crime for a doctor to treat a sick

Turkish Medical Society
In May 2019, the 11 board members of the Turkish Medical Society were sentenced to 20 months in prison for calling war a “public health problem” when Turkey invaded Afrin, Syria, in 2018. Officials charged the individuals with “instigating hatred and enmity among people or insulting people,” says the medical association’s president, Sinan Adıyaman. The banner, held up at a February 4, 2018 protest, shows eight board members and reads “Release them.” The cases are under appeal.ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Scrutiny of Chinese scientists

findings with colleagues around the world is central to science. For years,
U.S. funding agencies and research universities have encouraged collaboration
between Chinese and U.S. scientists, says Xiaoxing Xi, a physicist at Temple
University in Philadelphia. But collaborating has become riskier. 

Xi, who
earned his doctorate in China before emigrating to the United States in 1989,
has traveled frequently to China and worked with partners at Peking University,
Tsinghua University and Shanghai Jiaotong University. His research involves
fabricating pure materials for studying their intrinsic properties. Those
materials eventually could wind up in devices such as cell phones. “I do
fundamental research,” Xi says. “I do not do research which is classified or

In May 2015,
Xi was named chair of Temple’s physics department. Two days later, FBI agents
burst into his home, pulling Xi, his wife and two daughters from their bedrooms
at gunpoint. Xi describes it as a scene out of a movie. 

Xi says FBI
agents interrogated him for two hours. The agents thought he had shared
sensitive information with China, particularly about a device called a pocket
heater. Xi quickly realized that the agents had gotten the science wrong. The
information he had shared was not sensitive; it was about a different device,
not a pocket heater. But clearing his name took months, by which point his
reputation was in tatters. 

Xiaoxing Xi
In 2015, the FBI detained physicist Xiaoxing Xi for allegedly sharing sensitive information with China.Courtesy of X. Xi

On the same day that Xi was arrested, the Committee of 100, a nonprofit organization based in New York City that supports Chinese Americans in U.S. society, held a news conference to discuss a similar case. Sherry Chen, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service, had been arrested in October 2014 on espionage charges related to allegedly sharing information about the nation’s dams with China. Her case was dropped one week before trial. In December 2014, charges against two Chinese biologists working at Eli Lilly and Company in Indiana were dismissed.

“So you have …
four individuals accused of very serious crimes and yet all have their cases
dropped. That’s just very unusual,” says Jeremy Wu, a retired U.S. Census
Bureau statistician who is on the Committee of 100 board. 

To find out
what was going on, Wu contacted Andrew Chongseh Kim, a lawyer at Greenberg
Traurig LLP in Houston with some statistics expertise. Kim looked at a random
sample of 136 cases involving 187 individuals charged under the Economic
Espionage Act between 1997 and 2015. Kim recognized that focusing on that one
act would not cover all the cases — Xi was charged under a separate statute,
for instance — but it was the most straightforward means of quantifying the

“We have to be sure that everything we say cannot be twisted by the government to charge us.”

Xiaoxing Xi

Charges against people with Chinese names grew from 17 percent of more than 100 defendants from 1997 to 2008, an 11-year span, to 52 percent of the 80 or so who were charged over the next six years, Kim reported December 2018 in Cardozo Law Review. Concerns about economic espionage have been growing in recent years and seem to be centered on Chinese Americans suspected of sharing trade secrets with businesses in China, Kim says.

Some espionage cases against Chinese-American scientists ​are legitimate. Boeing engineer Dongfan “Greg” Chung was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2010 for stealing trade secrets for China regarding the U.S. space shuttle program. And Walter Lian-Heen Liew was sentenced to 15 years in 2014 for selling trade secrets to state-owned Chinese companies about a white pigment created by DuPont.

In Xi’s case,
the charges were dropped in September 2015, and he returned to work. But his
professional career has not recovered. He never did get to serve as chair of
his department, his federal grants and contracts have dwindled from nine before
his arrest to two today and his lab has shrunk from 15 members to three. Xi
says his family remains in a state of perpetual vigilance. “We have to be sure
that everything we say cannot be twisted by the government to charge us,” he

Rising up in Turkey

While some
scientists unwittingly stumble into bad situations, others act as
whistle-blowers. A decade ago, hope was mounting that Turkey could emerge as a
democratic stronghold in the troubled Middle East. And Erdoğan, who served as
prime minister for over a decade before he became president in 2014, appeared
moderate. As president, though, Erdoğan has turned toward authoritarianism.

Turkey’s academics have been pushing back. In January 2016, 1,128 Turkish scholars, including Fincanci, signed the Peace Petition. Accusing Erdoğan’s government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians, the petitioners demanded an end to the fighting. Turkey responded by suing over 800 signatories and pressuring universities to retaliate against those employees. Almost 500 scholars lost their jobs.

Fincanci was
forced to retire from her job at Istanbul University and is appealing the
2.5-year prison sentence she received for signing the document. “I have been
banned from public service,” she says.

Food engineer
Bülent Şik was already caught up in the country’s criminal justice system when
he signed the petition and subsequently lost his job. In 2011, Turkey’s
Ministry of Health sought to find out why cancer rates were so high in the
country’s northwestern industrial cities. Şik, who served as a team leader for
one of the 16 resulting projects, was tasked with looking for contaminants in
water and produce in four industrial provinces. His home city of Antalya, where
industries are rare, served as a control. Şik ’s team studied 1,440 locations
encompassing about 7 million people, including 1.3 million children.

Bülent Şik
Food engineer Bülent Şik found dangerously high contaminant levels in produce and drinking water in parts of Turkey. He faces up to 15 months in prison for publishing the findings.Barış Ilgaz Şik

Between 2013 and 2015, the team found that in 52 locations, people’s drinking water was dangerously high in lead, aluminum and arsenic, which have been linked to cancer. Almost a fifth of the food sampled contained pesticides above the legal limit. Şik’s team identified 66 types of pesticide residues, 26 of which are known to disrupt the endocrine systems of infants and children.

cumulative effect of ingesting those pesticides throughout childhood could be
catastrophic, says Şik, speaking through a translator. “I felt that this was my
scientific responsibility to explain those results and share [them] with the

In 2015,
representatives from all 16 projects and the health ministry pledged to make
the findings public. But the Ministry of Health never released the information.
So, in April 2018, Şik published a four-part series about his findings in the
national newspaper Cumhuriyet. Government officials sued Şik for
distributing confidential information. At one of several trials, he defiantly
spent an hour and a half describing his findings.

“It is our
freedom to say whatever we want during our defense. I used this freedom to
explain the rest of the findings,” Şik says. At his latest hearing on September
26, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison, a decision he is appealing.

“I felt that this was my scientific responsibility to explain those results and share [them] with the public.”

Bülent Şik

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out the fundamental rights of all people, it lacks enforcement teeth. More people need to come to the aid of persecuted scientists, Anderson says. “If we want to secure democracy and human rights, we need to mobilize. We need to support the people that are willing to stick their necks out.” 

More than
four decades ago, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and
Medicine established an advocacy arm for scientists experiencing persecution
worldwide. The National Academies’ Committee on Human Rights works behind the
scenes to research allegations of persecution against scientists and to
advocate on their behalf.

Other organizations have also been lending their support. In 2018, six professional statistical societies commended Georgiou for his work in Greece, noting his “upholding of the highest professional standards in his public service in the pursuit of integrity of statistical systems.” That same year, more than 40 organizations signed a petition calling for Greek officials to halt proceedings against Georgiou.

In October, the American Physical Society awarded Xi a 2020 Andrei Sakharov Prize for his “articulate and steadfast advocacy in support of the U.S. scientific community and open scientific exchange, and especially his efforts to clarify the nature of international scientific collaboration in cases involving allegations of scientific espionage.” And in September, members of 60 scientific societies wrote a letter calling on the U.S. government to find “the appropriate balance between our nation’s security and an open, collaborative scientific environment.”

In Turkey,
where most universities are state-run, sustained international pressure has
yielded limited success, says Robinson, of Scholars at Risk. “A lot of
academics are now being acquitted in Turkey but then they’re being reassigned
to [remote] universities or regions where they will be forgotten.”

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An ancient critter may shed light on when mammals’ middle ear evolved

Exceptionally preserved
skulls of a mammal that lived alongside the dinosaurs may be offering
scientists a glimpse into the evolution of the middle ear.

The separation of the three
tiny middle ear bones — known popularly as the hammer, anvil and stirrup — from
the jaw is a defining characteristic of mammals. The evolutionary shift of those tiny bones, which started out as joints in ancient reptilian
jaws and ultimately split from the jaw completely, gave mammals greater
sensitivity to sound, particularly at higher frequencies (SN: 3/20/07). But finding well-preserved skulls from ancient
mammals that can help reveal the timing of this separation is a challenge.

Now, scientists have six
specimens — four nearly complete skeletons and two fragmented specimens — of a newly
described, shrew-sized critter dubbed Origolestes
that lived about 123 million years ago. O. lii was part of the Jehol Biota, an ecosystem of ancient
wetlands-dwellers that thrived between 133 million and 120 million years ago in
what’s now northeastern China.

The skulls on the nearly
complete skeletons were so well-preserved that they were able to be examined in
3-D, say paleontologist Fangyuan Mao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in
Beijing and colleagues. That analysis suggests that O. lii’s middle ear bones were fully separated from its jaw, the team reports online December 5 in Science.

Fossils from an older,
extinct line of mammals have shown separated middle ear bones, but this newfound
species would be the first of a more recent lineage to exhibit this
evolutionary advance.

O. lii apparently
moved its jaw both in side-to-side and in rolling motions as it chewed. Such
chewing ability, the team says, may have played a role in the evolutionary
separation of the jaw and middle ear bones.

“This paper describes a
spectacular fossil,” says vertebrate paleontologist Zhe-Xi Luo of the
University of Chicago, who was not involved in the new study. But he’s not
convinced that O. lii represents an
evolutionary leap forward in mammalian ear evolution.

Luo notes that O. lii is closely related to the mammal
genus Maotherium, which lived around
the same time and in roughly the same location. In Science in July, Luo and colleagues reported that a new analysis of
Maotherium revealed that its middle ear bones were still connected to its jawbones by a strip of
cartilage (SN: 7/18/19).

That finding, Luo says, was
expected. Maotherium is well-known as
a transitional organism, in which the middle ear bones had begun to rotate away
from the jaw but were still loosely connected by that cartilage. There are
numerous branches and twigs on the mammal family tree, Luo says, and evolution
occurred at a different pace on them. But, he says, it’s unlikely that O. lii would
have had separated ear bones when Maotherium
didn’t, given the pair’s close positioning on
the tree.

Luo says he also doesn’t
find the study’s evidence that the separation was complete in O. lii convincing. Three of the four
skulls in the study were missing all or part of the middle ear, and the gap
between the middle ear bones and jaw in the fourth skull may have been a break
that occurred during fossilization, he adds.

However, the new study’s
researchers reject this idea. “It’s common that different interpretations may
exist for a discovery in paleontology,” says vertebrate paleontologist Jin Meng
of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, a coauthor of the study.

But, Meng says, none of the ear bones or the cartilage in any of the skulls show fractured or broken edges. That, he says, suggests that these features were already separated in the animals before their demise.

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