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Matters of note from around Johns Hopkins

Research: Hopkins researcher wins Lasker

Research: Nobel in medicine goes to Andrew Fire

Sports: A win for the team, a record for its coach

Medicine: In kids, sleep apnea has lasting effects

University: Ten years at Hopkins' helm

Public Health: Studies address lead paint problems

Chemical Engineering: Student gets the hang of it

Students: Computers tackle plagiarism

Clinical Research: Just what is "full disclosure"?

Books: Alice McDermott on suffering and heroism

Mathematics: Minimal surfaces aren't child's play

Music: Ben Franklin's refined, and ribald, songs

Research: Hopkins researcher wins Lasker for discovering telomerase

When Carol Greider began studying the basic workings of chromosomes as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley back in the early 1980s, she had no idea her work might one day have medical relevance. She certainly never thought it would earn a Lasker Award for medical research, considered by many to be the "American Nobel."

"I was surprised and thrilled," says Greider, who is now a professor and the director of the School of Medicine's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. She and two co-winners received the award — along with $100,000 — at a ceremony on September 29.

Carol Greider's research on telomerase may lead to new cancer treatments.
Photo by Will Kirk

In 1984 at Berkeley, Greider discovered telomerase — an enzyme that extends the end of a chromosome — in pond scum. "At first, we just wanted to understand the fundamentals of how normal cells work," Greider says. "If you can understand that, you can find out what goes wrong with disease."

Scientists now know that telomerase plays a key role in the biological mechanisms of rare blood diseases, aging, and even cancer-making research into the enzyme "one of the hottest fields of biomedical science," according to Joseph Goldstein, chairman of the all-scientist jury that chose the Lasker award winners.

In a normal human cell, as the cell ages the ends of the chromosomes, or telomeres, shorten. Eventually the telomeres become too short to function properly, and the cell dies. Greider explains that cancer cells express this telomerase enzyme, which elongates the chromosome ends and enables the cancer cells to divide indefinitely. Telomerase is an excellent target for cancer therapy, says Greider, who found that turning off the action of telomerase in mice with cancer gave dramatic protection against tumors.

A few types of human cells, like blood stem cells, are supposed to divide more than others. "You have to be able to replenish your blood supply," Greider explains. People with bone marrow failure can't reconstitute their blood because their telomeres get shorter. So for these cells, she says, turning on telomerase might help treat the disease. —Virginia Hughes, A&S '06 (MA)

Research: Nobel Prize goes to Andrew Fire

When the various Nobel Prize committees last month announced the 2006 Nobel laureates, Johns Hopkins tallied another winner: Andrew Z. Fire, co-recipient of the 2006 prize in medicine. Fire has been an adjunct professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences for the past 17 years.

Fire won the prize for discovering, with Craig C. Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, a mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information called RNA interference. An organism's cells synthesize proteins, following instructions contained in the cell's DNA. DNA transmits those instructions through a form of RNA called messenger RNA. In 1998, Fire and Mello discovered that a double-stranded form of RNA actually switches off certain genes, acting as a control. Subsequent work by other scientists has concluded that RNA interference evolved as a defense against viruses. Cells also use the mechanism to regulate their own genes.

The press release from the Nobel committee noted that RNA interference "has already become an important research tool in biology and biomedicine. In the future, it is hoped that it will be used in many disciplines including clinical medicine and agriculture."

As a senior researcher at the Carnegie Institution's Hopkins-based Department of Embryology, Fire has been an adjunct professor at Hopkins since 1989. He currently is a professor of pathology and genetics at the Stanford University School of Medicine, but continues to advise and mentor graduate biology students at Hopkins. — Dale Keiger

Sports: A win for the team, a record for its coach

On September 23, the Johns Hopkins field hockey team defeated Catholic University 3-1 and accomplished two things: The women continued a winning streak that eventually reached five straight victories, and made head coach Megan Callahan the winningest coach in Hopkins field hockey history.

Coach Callahan: "I'm proud to have accomplished this, especially at Hopkins."
Photo by Will Kirk
Callahan has tallied 114 wins and counting (as of press time) in her 10 seasons as the Jays' coach. Her teams have won three Centennial Conference championships and played in the NCAA national tournament three times. Her 1999 squad posted the best record in Hopkins history, finishing 17- 3.

"It's exciting," Callahan says. "I'm very proud to have accomplished this, especially at Hopkins."

The 2006 Jays started slow, dropping four of their first five games. Says the coach, "I challenged the team this year, in terms of the schedule I put together." Three of the first teams on the schedule — SUNY Cortland, Salisbury State, and College of New Jersey — are traditionally top-five teams. "I wanted one win out of those three games, which didn't happen," Callahan says. But the tough opening competition prepared her players for the rest of their schedule, she says, and the results suggest she is right. During their winning streak, the Jays defeated nationally ranked Gettysburg and pounded Notre Dame of Maryland, 9-0.

Not content just to coach, Callahan continues to play the game as a midfielder and forward for the FHC Mavericks, a combined men's and women's team based in Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Metros indoor team. "Playing gives me a continued updated perspective on the game," she says. "It's constantly changing. Experience as a player lets me pass on little tricks and raise the level of my team at Hopkins. If you don't continue to play, your game gets stagnant." She also works with the United States Field Hockey Futures as a regional site director, coaching promising high school players and working to raise the level of play of the American game. As a collegiate player at the University of Maryland, Callahan helped win a national championship in 1993. Her record at Hopkins puts her in good company. Nine current Hopkins coaches, including Callahan, are now the all-time winningest coaches in their respective sports. —DK

Medicine: In kids, sleep apnea has serious — and lasting — effects

Sufferers of sleep apnea — an estimated 12 million Americans adults — experience fragmented and poor-quality sleep brought on by momentary lapses of breath. After each apnea event, the brain briefly arouses the sleeper to resume normal breathing. In adults, the disorder can cause headaches, memory problems, sleepiness, poor work performance, and health risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome, including high blood pressure and obesity.

A new study suggests that in children, the condition's effects can be even more calamitous and lasting.

Illustration by
Alex Nabaum
A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins' School of Medicine, the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and the University of Pennsylvania recently discovered that children with serious, untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) appear to suffer damage in two brain structures that house such critical cognitive functions as attention, learning, and working memory. While it's not certain that the disorder causes the injury, researchers found a strong association between OSA and changes to the hippocampus and the right frontal cortex. Specifically, they observed altered ratios of neurochemicals that indicate injury to brain cells.

The study, which appeared in the August 22 global online journal Public Library of Science Medicine, compared 19 children with severe OSA to 12 children without the disorder. Lead author Ann Halbower, a lung specialist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center and an assistant professor in the School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics, says that while researchers have known for years that fragmented sleep, interrupted breathing, and oxygen deprivation harm children's learning ability and school performance, this is the first time they have linked neurochemical changes in the brain to cognitive problems in kids with OSA, which affects 2 percent to 3 percent of children in the United States.

Halbower says that the effects of untreated apnea might be far more damaging in children than in adults because the injuries occur during critical developmental periods and might lead to long-term cognitive deficits. She adds that while adult sleep apnea is recognized as a major public health problem — the disorder has been linked to cardiovascular morbidity and an increased number of auto accidents nationwide — children's sleep apnea remains grossly understudied.

"More research needs to be done. Our next step is to determine if the effects of sleep apnea are reversible with treatment and at what age children are more vulnerable. Are they protected if they are treated earlier? We need to answer these questions," she says. "Children have a lifetime of cognitive function impairment that could be prevented if we catch it and treat it early. If you can diagnose a child by the age of 3, think of all those years of normal, healthy brain development the child would have had if this was a reversible thing."

Signs that a child might have sleep apnea, Halbower says, are snoring, grunting, labored breathing, heavy sweating, and sleeping in unusual positions. During the daytime, a child with sleep apnea might display severe sleepiness, irritability, and hyperactivity. In children, the leading causes of sleep apnea are a localized obstruction of breathing and decreased nervous system involvement in keeping the airway open. The usual treatment is having the tonsils and adenoids removed, or wearing a special mask to ensure smooth airflow and uninterrupted breathing during sleep. — Greg Rienzi

University: Ten years at Hopkins' helm

...And he can balance a sword on his head: Brody at last year's Fall Festival.
Photo by Will Kirk
William R. Brody just completed his 10th year as president of Johns Hopkins University. For a university president, just serving 10 years in office is a major achievement, considering that the average college president stays in the job 6.6 years, according to the American Council on Education.

"It's a wonderful job," he told The Gazette earlier this year. "I get credit for things that thousands of people spend many hours doing. And occasionally I get blamed for things that I had nothing to do with as well. You have to accept both."

Here are some highlights from Brody's decade-long tenure as president:

He established the Commission on Undergraduate Education and conducted a review of undergraduate programs, which led to the naming of a new vice dean for undergraduate education, a change in course schedules, and the building of a new residence hall for upperclassmen.

He expanded the university's international scope and visibility through continued support of Hopkins programs in China, Italy, and Singapore. Under Brody's leadership, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center began offering a new master's degree program; in Singapore, Hopkins created the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and the Hopkins Medical clinical program.

He has overseen the addition of more than 5 million gross square feet of new building space to the university's various campuses and oversaw the development of master plans for Homewood and East Baltimore.

He helped raise the university's profile, through newspaper editorials and congressional testimony, in the national conversation on higher education, technological competitiveness and innovation, and patient safety.

He has fostered relationships with the communities surrounding Hopkins campuses, resulting in stronger Homewood-neighborhood partnerships, as well as plans that are now being realized for a technology park and residential community north of the medical campus.

Under Brody's leadership, Hopkins became the nation's only institution of higher education to run successful, consecutive billion dollar-plus campaigns. In the past decade, the university's revenues have doubled, its endowment has tripled, and annual fundraising has increased by more than a factor of three.

He has strengthened the university's commitment to diversity and inclusion through the creation of the Diversity Leadership Council and the University Committee on the Status of Women.
— Maria Blackburn

Public Health: Lead paint studies: Finding the problem, then fixing it

Though lead-based paint was banned from household use in 1978, lead poisoning hasn't gone away — especially in kids. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 300,000 children nationwide under age 5 have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

That number is far lower than it was 30 years ago, but no one should underestimate the problem, says Patricia McLaine, SPH '87 (MPH). "We need to use what political will we have to get rid of these lead sources that have been poisoning children here for close to 100 years." A Bloomberg School of Public Health doctoral candidate in environmental health and former Hopkins School of Nursing faculty member, McLaine recently co-authored two papers on reducing lead levels efficiently and inexpensively.

Kids can be exposed to lead through toys, cosmetics, and even candy, but the majority comes from lead-laced dust in the home. They get dust and dirt on their hands, McLaine says, "and then, especially when they're young, the hand goes in their mouth, and the lead goes with it." The dust, she says, "is largely a problem of older housing. Pre-1950s houses are 90 percent likely to have lead-based paint." In Maryland, more than 60 percent of owner-occupied houses are old enough to be at high risk of containing lead-based dust or paint chips. Repeated exposure to lead, especially when the brain is developing, "could lead to IQ loss, neurological problems of various kinds, even behavioral problems, like dropping out of school or arrests," McLaine says. "It's a thing of concern to society as a whole."

"We need to use what political will we have to get rid of these lead sources that have been poisoning children here for close to 100 years."
Illustration by
Bryan Hubble

At first, lead-exposed children have no physical symptoms, and the only way to identify them is to screen them. Once an exposed child is found, there's no way to eliminate lead from the body, McLaine says, "so the treatment is to treat the house."

McLaine says researchers have long searched for ways to identify children at risk before they are exposed to lead. "Rather than waiting for children to become poisoned and then trying to deal with it," she says, "we should preventatively test homes." A home can have traces of lead on floors, doors, and windows, in multiple rooms, and McLaine wanted to know what samples would most accurately predict a child's risk of exposure.

To find out, she and researchers at the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) focused on Milwaukee, a city with a history of lead poisoning. As published in the July 5 online issue of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, they found that sampling dust from floors — as opposed to windowsills — was "highly predictive of whether a child would have a higher blood lead level," suggesting that houses could be screened in at-risk communities of Milwaukee by taking a small number of floor dust lead tests. She adds that it could represent a cost savings for prevention efforts.

These results were specific to Milwaukee, and McLaine emphasizes that in other cities, different areas in the home may be best for sampling. But she hopes these kinds of studies will inspire other city governments to take a good look at their own data and evaluate the relationships between the tools they use and the outcomes of interest.

Lead can also lie trapped in the soil under a house and in the backyard. "Exterior sheds have peeling paint," she says, and leaded gasoline that was used for so many years "hasn't gone anywhere — it's still with us in the soil." The standard method of land lead abatement, which involves fully replacing all of the topsoil, can run up to $10,000, McLaine says. "Plus, you're exposing people to a lot of [tainted] dirt."

McLaine and another NCHH team cleaned up 47 large properties in the Boston area by making practical changes: raising decks, play areas, and gardens off the ground; replacing dirt paths with stepping stones; and covering dirt driveways with gravel. A study co-authored by McLaine in the September issue of the journal Environmental Research shows that these methods drove down lead levels just as much as the standard treatments, but for an average price of just $2,800.

McLaine has been working as a public health nurse and researcher for 25 years and is a member of the Maryland Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission. "There has been steady progress," she says about the reduced number of children poisoned in the last few decades. "But one concern I have is that because the numbers look better, there will also be a decline in resources made available. I really urge that we use the resources wisely and make sure that children are safe from exposure, because this is an environmental disease — and we can fix this one." — VH

Words Not Wasted on the Young

"I'd rather die in the pursuit of freeing my soul and my mind and people, than live forever, as a second-class citizen subjugated to voicelessness." —Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, speaking at the 2006 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium on September 19. This year's symposium, which runs through November 9, is titled "Finding Our Voice: The Role of America's Youth." Other speakers include activist Ralph Nader, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, actor Jason Alexander, and poet and former Black Panther Afeni Shakur.

Chemical Engineering: In the lab, a Baltimore Scholar more than gets "the hang of it"

Shortly after Britni Lonesome was accepted into Justin Hanes' chemical engineering lab, he asked her to present to the lab group. Then a high-school senior, Lonesome was to explain her new project: making a plastic implant that could release medication, continuously and consistently for three months, into the bloodstream of a tuberculosis patient.

Freshman Britni Lonesome at the bench
Photo by Will Kirk
Her talk was impressive, "from the professionalism of her slides to how prepared and lucid she was," says Hanes, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Whiting School. "And that was early on. So I knew that she was going to be something special."

Lonesome was introduced to Hanes by one of her high school teachers at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Sally Kutzer, who places students in local research labs. Lonesome spent the next year working with Hanes' lab group to develop this TB-drug implant, with much success. She won a first-place medal at the Baltimore Science Fair; a gold medal at the NAACP's Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) state competition; and a bronze at the ACT-SO national competition. The nonchalant 18-year-old now takes it all in stride. "At first it was overwhelming, all of the new information and technical terms," she says. "But then, I don't know, you just get the hang of it."

Though TB is kept in check in Western countries, it runs rampant in the Third World, where patients often can't afford medicine or don't have access to sparse rural clinics. "Right now, they have to take four pills every single day, for six to nine months," Lonesome explains. "Keeping up with this regimen is hard, and not doing it when you're supposed to can lead to drug resistance." Any implant that required surgery wouldn't be feasible in these areas, Hanes adds, because the clinics are usually staffed by nurses, not surgeons.

The new implant could solve many of these problems. "This is cheap to make," Lonesome says, "and you don't have to worry about remembering to take the pills." What's more, no surgery is needed: the dime-size plastics they're using are so flexible, "you could just fold it in half, like a pancake, and put it inside of a large needle," Lonesome explains. "All you'd need is a local anesthetic."

Since joining the lab a year ago, she has been testing implants with different drug concentrations by placing them in solutions that mimic the body's chemistry, to see how well each releases the drug. Implants with higher drug concentrations have more inconsistent drug release. "It'd be like taking four pills one day, and two another," she says. Once the team figures out the optimal concentration, they plan to make improved versions of the implants — ones that dissolve harmlessly in the body, or contain a cocktail of drugs.

Around the time she began working with Hanes, Lonesome applied for early decision to Johns Hopkins and was accepted as part of the Baltimore Scholars Program, a two-year-old program that grants tuition to any Baltimore City public school senior admitted to the university. She started classes this fall. "I think her year working at Hopkins really made her confident that she could succeed here as a student," Hanes says. "That's one of the great things about Sally's program — it gets students in here, and they realize that this is an environment where they could thrive."

College life, Lonesome says, "is pretty cool," though she jokes, "my friends are all Arts and Sciences majors, so I'm in class a lot more than they are." She's still getting used to her recent fame: "The first week I got here I was on the front page of the [Johns Hopkins] Gazette," she recalls, "and that was a little weird." — VH

Students: Computers tackle plagiarism

A student turns in a paper for class. The professor reads it, and some of it seems familiar. Now what happens? Maybe the professor googles the suspicious phrases, or perhaps she checks the work against books, other sources, and previously submitted papers.

Illustration by
Robin Jareaux
A new online plagiarism-prevention program called gives her another option. Turnitin, which was made available this semester to faculty in the Whiting School of Engineering and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, calls itself "the world's most widely used solution to the problem of cut-and-paste plagiarism." Here's how it works: A professor or student submits a paper to the site, and the program checks the paper against a database that contains billions of sources: current and archived pages from the Internet, millions of student papers previously submitted to the site, and journal and periodical articles. Turnitin then generates an "originality report" detailing any similarities between that paper and previously written materials, including a percentage of matching text.

The program doesn't make a judgment on whether a paper has been plagiarized or not, cautions Brian Cole, senior information technology specialist at the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins. It just cites matching text. "Even if you have a paper that the program said was a 100 percent match that doesn't mean it's plagiarism," says Cole. For instance, the program will flag quotations and other matching text that have been adequately sourced.

Thousands of schools worldwide use Turnitin, including Georgetown University and the University of Colorado — but not without controversy. Students have argued that, by archiving student papers, the company is violating copyright law. A student at McGill University won the right to refuse submitting his papers to Turnitin because, he said, "it treats students as though we are all guilty until proven innocent," according to a Canadian Federation of Students press release.

Dorothy Sheppard, associate dean of students at Johns Hopkins, says that the decision to offer this service was made in light of the vast amount of information available on the Internet and students' confusion about how and what to cite. The university is working to educate students about how to cite sources and what constitutes plagiarism. Turnitin is part of that effort, she says.

Last year, there were 40 Hopkins students formally charged with academic misconduct, 11 of which were plagiarism cases. "It would make sense for us to use one of the latest tools out there to help us decide whether something has been plagiarized," Sheppard says. "This is another tool that's easily accessible to professors. We also hope that it's a deterrent. Students need to know that we have this tool and we are making use of it." — MB

Clinical Research: Just what is "full disclosure?"

Financial conflicts of interest are a fact of life in medical research. Pharmaceutical companies pay for studies involving their drugs. Scientists sometimes own stock in corporations that fund or will be affected by their findings. A new study of researchers and people responsible for oversight of research has found that there is consensus that conflicts should be disclosed to research participants, but there is also uncertainty over the manner and details of this disclosure.

The new research, co-authored by Jeremy Sugarman, deputy director for medicine at Hopkins' Berman Bioethics Institute, reveals concern that complete financial disclosure — full dollar amounts and the sources of those dollars — could confuse potential participants or unduly discourage them from enrolling in medical studies. Says Sugarman, "People, perhaps in the name of transparency, want to provide some sort of information. But they don't seem to want to give information that may distract from all the other relevant information that needs to be considered before enrolling in a clinical trial."

Illustration by
William L. Brown
Titled "Disclosing Conflicts of Interest in Clinical Research," the new findings are part of an ongoing five-year, $3 million Conflict of Interest Notification Study (COINS) funded by NIH. Sugarman and his co-authors interviewed scientists, institutional review board (IRB) chairs, and conflict-of-interest committee officials at academic medical centers like Hopkins, independent hospitals, non-affiliated research entities, and independent IRBs. Some of the interview subjects said they thought concern over financial conflicts is exaggerated, but most said that some sort of disclosure should occur under circumstances in which a financial interest exists. Their reasons varied: enabling better informed decisions by potential participants, fostering trust and transparency, reducing risk of liability, improving management of the public's perception of conflicts.

But some balked at full disclosure of dollar amounts received from funding sources, largely out of uncertainty over how those amounts would be perceived. For some, the concern was making disclosure statements even more complicated than they are now. Some expressed reservations about invasions of privacy; for example, should details of their personal investment portfolios be open to public scrutiny? Others worried that certain disclosures could be inflammatory. Implicit in many of the responses was concern that research participants would overestimate the influence that money would have on researchers' conduct.

Sugarman says the people interviewed for the study want to do the right thing but are not sure how. He notes that some institutions now disclose a range instead of an exact amount, or employ vague descriptors like "substantial investment." "What you have in practice is incredible variation, because no one really knows what effects disclosure is going to have," he says. "People are struggling with how best to do it." — DK

Books:On suffering and heroism

Author Alice McDermott
Photo by
Eames Armstrong
Alice McDermott's sixth and latest novel isn't about growing up Irish-Catholic on Long Island. Nor is it about coming of age during the tumultuous 1960s. Well, it is — but the author doesn't exactly see it that way. "This book is really about suffering," says McDermott, a professor in Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars who won a National Book Award for Charming Billy in 1998.

After This (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) is, indeed, the story of John and Mary Keane and their four children, an Irish-Catholic family from Long Island. The book covers their lives from the 1950s through the 1970s and touches on religion, abortion, family relationships, and the Vietnam War. McDermott started writing After This more than five years ago, drawn by the idea of chronicling a family over a number of years. By telling a family's story, she aimed to write about the human condition, she says. Then September 11 happened. And the Iraq War. McDermott had an epiphany of sorts. Her novel-in-progress was not just about a family. It was about the "forces that work on us, both those that are in our control and those that are not."

"How is it that, in a life in a world where suffering is inevitable, we still love one another?" McDermott says. "It's not just about suffering; it's almost about the miraculous, illogical things that suffering elicits from us. In suffering there's opportunity for one of our greatest acts: heroism."

McDermott relishes quiet, finely wrought anecdotes. From her description of the "sweet, heart-dropping pain" John feels when he looks at Jacob, his almost-grown son, to her account of spinster Pauline settling into the "tinny loneliness" of a small apartment on a Sunday evening, McDermott knows how to describe a person, a setting, a relationship with perfectly chosen words and details that ring true. Her writing is powerful, but it requires a careful reading. "The words count," she says. "Gestures count. Details count. There's meaning beneath the surface. As a writer I try to provide enough detail so that the reader will read closely and try to make connections."

McDermott, who grew up in suburban Long Island, says she writes what she knows. "I keep going back more to the Catholicism than to the Irishness," she says, "because I guess it gives me the opportunity to allow the characters vocabulary for things of the spirit they might not otherwise have."

For example, the book's title is from a prayer that comes to the Keanes' son Michael after a drunken night at a local bar, whose building once served as a funeral home. Michael is shaken when he realizes that after some patrons dug up a coffin, they dumped the body by the back door. He finds solace in the words of the prayer that came to him: "To thee we do cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb."

So what is after this? McDermott thinks for a moment. "If this is our exile, then after this is our return home," she says. "Home is the shelter from the storm." — MB

Mathematics: Defining minimal surfaces isn't child's play

Dip a wand into a bottle of children's bubble solution, and the solution forms a film that fills the wand's ring. Every time, without fail, that film will arrange itself in what mathematicians call a minimal surface. Mathematicians have tried to define these surfaces for more than two centuries, but their understanding has been limited. New work by Johns Hopkins mathematician William Minicozzi has significantly expanded what mathematicians now understand, and provided new tools for solving some long-standing problems in the field.

Illustration by
Jud Guitteau
The surface in the example above (which is not frivolous — 18th-century mathematicians began the study of minimal surfaces by actually dipping small wire frames into soapy water) is small and simple. But "minimal" should not be taken to always imply simple: Minimal surfaces can be large, and as complex as DNA molecules or folded proteins. Mathematicians have not been able to study complicated examples because despite 250 years of thought and analysis, the only way they could mathematically understand minimal surfaces was by imposing some a priori restrictions. First, the surface could not curve too much. Second, it could not be too big. Says Minicozzi, "Give up these restrictions, and there was almost nothing that could be said. We wanted to know what happened when you left that safe region."

He and his research partner, Tobias H. Colding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided early in their work to concentrate first on a spiraling form of minimal surface known as a helicoid. "Nature derives the most efficient surfaces," Minicozzi says. "One of the clues that a helicoid is an efficient surface and not just an accident is its ubiquity in nature. You see it in the double helix of DNA. You see it inside the human ear. It just keeps showing up."

With helicoids in mind, Minicozzi and Colding took a close look at the properties in three-dimensional space of another sort of surface, what's called a minimal disk (picture a wafer). If the disk's surface curved a lot, the disk could arrange itself only one way — as a double spiral staircase like a helicoid. In mathematical terms, helicoids thus were the fundamental building blocks of the disk. (It's hard to visualize, but the math works.) As the mathematicians then looked at other, more complicated minimal surfaces, they kept finding more helicoids. Using software that draws complex surfaces, they input a set of parameters for what's known as a Riemann shape, and a computer in Berkeley crunched the math and began to draw the figure. As Minicozzi gazed at the monitor of his own computer in his Krieger School office, the Riemann shape began to build out of helicoids. There was no mistaking what he was seeing. The spiral-staircase forms were the building blocks not only of the minimal disk, but of this complex surface, too.

"It was completely shocking," he recalls. "We hadn't known it would do that. All of a sudden, there it is. It was a good moment."

As the two mathematicians pursued their study, eventually they were able to show that any minimal surface of genus zero (a sphere is one example of a genus zero surface), including the sort of large, complex surfaces that had eluded previous attempts to mathematically describe them, is built from just a few basic components: helicoids, another simple geometric shape called a catenoid, and a simple graph of a function.

Catenoid They published their work in the July 25 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Says Minicozzi, "We now understand these minimal surfaces, even without bounds on area and curvature. That's mathematically new. There are a fair number of long-standing problems in the field, and this is the key point for solving them." In the wake of the paper, mathematicians who had been stuck began settling problems that had been unresolvable for decades.

Minicozzi notes that understanding minimal surfaces could have important ramifications for other fields, such as molecular engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology. "Unfortunately, I understand almost nothing about how applied people use these things," he says with a smile. "I'd love it if somebody figured out how to use this work, but it won't be me." — DK

Music: From refined operas to ribald drinking songs

In 1713, Benjamin Franklin took money he had received for Christmas and bought a penny whistle. Franklin was 7 years old at the time, and music would become one of his many lifelong interests; with typical eclecticism, he enjoyed opera and folk ballads, refined chamber music and not-so-refined drinking songs. He wrote songs himself, was the subject of songs, and invented a musical instrument he called the "glass armonica."

In conjunction with the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth, Peabody instructor David Hildebrand and his wife, Ginger, Peab '88, who perform colonial American music as a duo, have issued a new recording, Music in the Life of Benjamin Franklin. The CD includes opera, songs attributed to Franklin's authorship (including "The Downfal of Pyracy [sic]" and "I Sing My Plain Country Joan"), and an adagio composed by Mozart for glass armonica. Honors for best title go to a drinking song, "The Antediluvians Were All Very Sober."

About a year ago, soprano and musical scholar Julianne Baird approached the Hildebrands with the idea of their publishing company, the Colonial Music Institute, bringing out a book on Franklin's musical interests. "The more we got to talking," says David Hildebrand, "the more we thought maybe we could collaborate on a recording, too." Baird signed on as the soprano for the CD, which Hildebrand produced. The forthcoming book will include music and lyrics from the recording, historical notes, and a bibliography.

"Franklin's musical trail is pretty full," Hildebrand says. "He was a musician himself, and music theorist, and philosopher. He wrote a lot about why opera, for example, doesn't connect with the common people. He was a firm believer in ballads and familiar tunes as the most moving sort of music. Wherever he went, in every phase of his life, he left evidence of doing music."

Franklin's musical invention, the glass armonica, made use of a parlor trick: running a moistened finger around the lip of a wine glass to make it resonate. For his instrument, he attached a row of glass bowls of various sizes to a long crank and mounted the crank on a wooden stand. One played the instrument by turning the crank and touching fingers to the spinning bowls. He wrote in a letter to Italian scientist Giambatista Beccaria in 1762, "The advantage of this instrument is that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other." Mozart composed at least two pieces for it. Says Hildebrand, "There was a fad for this instrument in the courts of Europe, and Mozart jumped right on it."

After the experience of researching Franklin and producing the recording, Hildebrand says, "What a shame that wise and famous people don't play music together like they used to. It was part of court life, part of the social fabric. This is how people unwound together. I firmly believe the whole idea of coming together to make music as a group has evaporated." — DK

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