World encompassed

July 6, 2007

Un report highlights desert threat

Enough fertile land could turn into desert within the next generation to create an "environmental crisis of global proportions", large-scale migrations, and political instability in parts of Africa and Central Asia, according to a United Nations report.

It estimates that 50 million people are at risk of displacement in the next ten years if desertification is not checked.

One of the report's authors, Zafar Adeel of the United Nations University, has called for collaboration among individual nations and international groups to solve what has so far been an under-recognised crisis in the making, caused mainly by climate change.

The report suggests that dry lands can be partly restored with vegetation that would absorb carbon dioxide emissions. Developed countries could invest in programmes to prevent conversion of dry land to desert through trading emissions schemes.

Missing tooth id for old egyptian queen

A single tooth and some DNA clues appear to have solved the mystery of the lost mummy of Hatshepsut one of the great queens of ancient Egypt, who reigned in the 15th century BC according to a report in The New York Times.

Archaeologists who conducted the research said that the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut was the first mummy of an Egyptian ruler to be positively identified since King Tutankhamun's tomb was opened in 1922.

The mummy, found originally in 1903 in a humble, undecorated tomb in the Valley of the Kings, was identified after a CT scan of a wooden box containing internal organs revealed the tooth. This fitted exactly into the jaw socket and broken root of the unidentified mummy, which was of an obese woman. The scanned box bore the name Hatshepsut.

Further CT scans led physicians to conclude that the woman was about 50 when she died. She was overweight and had bad teeth. She probably had diabetes and died of bone cancer, which had spread through her body.

Australians retreat to limit damages

Australian universities are withdrawing en masse from offshore teaching operations for lack of profitability and fear of reputational damage, reports The Australian newspaper.

Universities have this week confirmed the closure of dozens of courses plagued by quality and cost issues across Asia and the Pacific, involving thousands of students and million-dollar losses.

Offshore operations have been plagued by quality problems, often blamed by Australian universities on the difficulty of controlling their overseas partners' standards. Universities typically shut down programmes in advance of audits by the Australian Universities Quality Agency, it was claimed.

They also face fiercer competition from local providers, with increasingly sophisticated education sectors of their own.

The course terminations in recent years appear to have been greatest in China, Singapore and Hong Kong.

David Goodman, deputy vice-chancellor and international vice-president at the University of Technology, Sydney, said: "People thought they could make money out of it and they can't."

Hello Dolly! toys feature in contest

In the often weird and wonderful world of higher education, Peking University has come up with one of the oddest student initiatives.

The university is holding a plastic doll design contest, initiated by its intriguingly named Guiding Centre for Extracurricular Activities. The idea, says the university, is "to encourage graduates to memorise their diverse campus life and their love of PKU by innovative paintings on plastic dolls".

Entrants must first submit design drafts of how to draw on the plastic dolls. When contestants complete their design on the dolls, they will be exhibited during the graduation week. Once this display is finished, all the plastic dolls will be given to the students as mementoes.

Everyone's a winner in free tennis initiative

As Wimbledon approaches its climax, one Indian university has come up with a novel way to keep its staff and students sweet free tennis lessons.

The University of Mumbai is offering the coaching to the children of staff and to university students at its new Tennis Centre of Excellence at the university's Vidyanagri Campus.

Numerical analysis pioneer dies at 96

Mathematician John Todd, one of the pioneers of numerical analysis, has died aged 96.

Professor Todd, who was emeritus professor at California Institute of Technology, worked in areas such as linear algebra and computation. His work was a precursor to and helped shape the foundation for today's computer science field.

He developed the first undergraduate courses at Caltech in numerical analysis and numerical algebra, which play a key role in scientific computing.

Professor Todd, who was born in Ireland in 1911, grew up near Belfast. After earning his BSc from Queen's University in 1931, he went to St John's College, Cambridge, for graduate studies under renowned mathematicians J. E. Littlewood and G. H. Hardy.

Subsequently, he went to work at King's College London, where he soon met his intellectual and romantic match, Olga Taussky, a matrix and number theorist. They married in 1938.

In 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, Professor Todd found an opening with the British Admiralty, which assigned him to Portsmouth to help develop methods for degaussing or demagnetising ships to keep them from being blown up by enemy torpedoes.

One of Professor Todd's most famous achievements was his salvation of the Mathematical Research Institute at Oberwolfach in Germany.

Near the war's end, Professor Todd and his colleagues went to investigate rumours that mathematicians were being held as prisoners of war in Germany's Black Forest. They actually found the Mathematical Research Institute at Oberwolfach, where the University of Freiburg was protecting the mathematicians. Professor Todd claimed the building for the Admiralty and prevented Moroccan troops from destroying the institute and its work.

In his Caltech oral history, Professor Todd recalls the incident as "probably the best thing I ever did for mathematics".

Autistic mice respond to genetic 'cure'

Researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have reversed symptoms of mental retardation and autism in mice.

The mice were genetically manipulated to model fragile X syndrome (FXS), the leading inherited cause of mental retardation and the most common genetic cause of autism. The condition, tied to a mutated X chromosome gene called fragile X mental retardation 1 (FMR1) gene, causes mild learning disabilities to severe autism.

"Our study suggests that inhibiting a certain enzyme in the brain could be an effective therapy for countering the debilitating symptoms of FXS in children and possibly in autistic kids as well," said co-author Mansuo L. Hayashi, a former Picower Institute postdoctoral fellow currently at Merck Research Laboratories in Boston.

The study identifies a key enzyme a chemical reaction-inducing protein as a possible target for an FXS drug. The enzyme, called p21-activated kinase, or PAK, affects the number, size and shape of connections between neurons in the brain.

The work will be reported in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

Photos mean prizes in Canberra competition

Do you have a favourite part of your campus or perhaps a favourite student? If so, the type of photography competition being run by Canberra University would be right up your street.

A prize of A$1,000 (£425) is on offer to amateur photographers in a competition catchily titled "How do you see UC?"

"We are looking for more than just simple photographs of the University of Canberra and its campus. Prizes will be awarded by our judging panel for originality, creativity, technical excellence, impact and even humour, together with relevance to the competition," explained associate director of marketing Leona Butler.

"It could be your favourite part of the campus, how you spend time with friends, or how you learn, teach or work at UC. It can be beautiful, arty, clever, humorous or wacky it's up to you."

Perhaps such competitions will catch on.

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