Flute Still Plays After 9,000 Years

Chinese anthropologists have discovered what is probably the oldest playable musical instrument ever found--a 9,000-year-old bone flute with seven holes and a scale remarkably like the modern do-re-mi.

Garman Harbottle, a nuclear chemist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., said excavators found six intact flutes and fragments of 30 others in graves at the Jiahu Neolithic site in east-central China's Henan province.

Harbottle, who helped date the flutes, said they have between five and eight holes and are made from the wing bones of the red-crowned crane. The flutes were discovered in the 1980s but were dated only recently. Harbottle and three Chinese scientists report on the flutes in the Sept. 23 issue of Nature.

While archaeologists have found flutes as much as 45,000 years old, none is playable. Harbottle said the Jiahu flute was blown across the top like a pan pipe, emitting sounds "remarkably like a modern tone scale."

Chinese analysts tried to play two of the other flutes but "instantly stopped playing" when they "put out a cracking sound," Harbottle said. Scientists will try to make exact plastic replicas of the flutes to test them for range and tone, he added.

Gases Point to Atmosphere Shift

Primordial gases from Earth's infancy are seeping out of the ground at gas wells in the southwestern United States and in Australia. Geologists led by Mark W. Caffee of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have analyzed the concentration of different isotopes of xenon in those gases and discovered that their "signature" is different from that found in Earth's atmosphere--but similar to what is found in meteorites.

The well gas seems to be leaking from a reservoir deep inside Earth where noble, or nonreactive, gases such as xenon have remained relatively unchanged since the sun, its family of planets (and the rubble that produces meteorites) were born out of a massive rotating disk of dust and gas 4.5 billion years ago. The findings are described in the Sept. 24 issue of Science.

Scientists had long wondered why the isotopic "fingerprint" of Earth's atmosphere did not match that seen throughout the rest of the solar system, Caffee said in a phone interview. Now they know that, at least way down deep, it does.

But he said the analysis also suggests a more complex picture of how Earth's atmosphere evolved. Scientists had proposed that the atmosphere was formed from degassing of the planet, but this is not so clear if the gases below and above do not match. "We address the 'when,' but not the 'why,' " Caffee said. "The big news is that something happened to the Earth after its formation" that altered its atmosphere.

Fruit Flies Get Even Smaller

Everything seems to be getting smaller these days. Cellular telephones can fit easily in your palm. Laptop computers rest lightly on your legs. Now, as if they weren't already small enough, scientists have figured out a way to breed miniature fruit flies.

Jacques Montagne of the University of Zurich and colleagues at North Dakota State University in Fargo bred flies that lacked a protein called dS6K, which they believed regulated cell size. In fact, the researchers found that flies deficient in the protein had the same number of cells as normal fruit flies, but that the cells were only half as big.

The discovery provides new insight into how nature regulates the size of things, the researchers write in reporting their findings in the Sept. 24 issue of Science.

Adult Brain a Work in Progress

Neuroscientists have new clues to how the human brain matures.

Elizabeth Sowell of the University of California at Los Angeles and colleagues did brain scans on 10 people age 12 to 16 and 10 people age 23 to 30.

Parts of the brain involved in sensory perception and language had largely matured by adolescence. But cell growth continued to increase in several parts of the brain, most notably the frontal cortex, which controls higher cognitive functions such as emotion, organization of complex tasks and inhibition of inappropriate behavior.

"Many of these aptitudes continue to develop between adolescence and young adulthood," the researchers write in the October issue of Nature Neuroscience.

CAPTION: Of these flutes unearthed in China in the 1980s, the one second from the bottom, about 9,000 years old, is the only one still playable.