Last winter Daniel Everett, chair of Pitt's linguistics department, encountered a previously undiscovered language while on sabbatical in Brazil. He was completing work on the grammar of an Amazonian language called Wari, spoken by approximately 1,800 Amazonians on a reservation near Brazil's border with Bolivia, when a colleague called his attention to what they first thought was a dialect of Wari.
Upon closer study, Everett realized that the tongue spoken by a small group of rain forest dwellers called the Oro Win was not a dialect of Wari at all, but a distinct language. While Wari and Oro Win do bear some resemblance to each other, they are mutually unintelligible.
Everett consulted local anthropologists and combed through the scholarly and historical literature without coming across any other record of the language. "It's not that I'm the first person from the outside world to see these people or to hear their language," Everett explains. "My claim is that I'm the first person to recognize it as a different language."
The language eluded recognition partly because the Oro Win also speak the Wari language and are switching over to Portuguese as their primary language. "There are about 25-40 people who consider themselves Oro Win," says Everett, "but as far as we can tell, only six really speak the language as their first language.
"The Amazonian languages are the least-known languages in the world," Everett goes on. "So the discovery of any language in the Amazon is always an important event. Scientifically, they are important because they show lots of word patterns and sound patterns that have never been found anywhere else in the world."
For example, sentences in Wari and Oro Win feature the extremely unusual word order of verb, object, subject. Where we would say, "Spot fetched the stick," the Oro Win would say, "Fetched the stick Spot."
According to Everett, the Oro Win spent decades as forced laborers on a rubber plantation until several years ago when a Catholic missionary alerted the Brazilian government to their plight. The government sent them to live among the Wari, who Everett says are traditional enemies of the Oro Win. The two tribes, however, now co-exist peacefully on reservation land where they raise corn, sugar cane, tapioca root, melons, and other crops.
Everett plans to apply to the National Science Foundation for a grant -- a process that could take several years -- to study Oro Win. With Oro Win down to a handful of speakers, Everett doubts the language will endure much longer. He hopes that the discovery of the Oro Win as a group distinct from the Wari will prompt the Brazilian government to provide the Oro Win with their own land, so that they may continue to exist as a people even after their language has disappeared.
Because carbon-based molecules are so complicated, the process of synthesizing organic molecules can take years and involve hundreds of lengthy and precise steps. Wipf has completed several difficult feats of organic synthesis in his labs at Pitt. In recognition of his work, he recently won a five-year, $500,000 Presidential Faculty fellowship, a new national award given by President Clinton to honor young scientists and engineers.
Organic synthesis requires an understanding of the composition of molecules that goes far beyond looking at chemical formulas. Wipf must envision in three dimensions the target molecule he plans to build.
Then, as he carries out chemical reactions designed to create the target molecule, he must test the results of the reactions. "At every step," Wipf says, "you have to check to see if you still have the thing you want." In order to see the "geometry" of the molecules he has produced, Wipf needs some high-tech tools.
One such instrument is the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer. This machine takes advantage of the fact that all atoms rotate on a magnetic axis, much as planets do. Wipf uses the NMR spectrometer to create a magnetic field around the molecules under investigation. The atoms that compose the molecules then align their rotation either "up" or "down" in relation to the magnetic field. The NMR spectrometer feeds pulses of radio waves to the molecules. In response, the atoms begin to "flip" -- that is, to change the direction of their rotation. By noting which radio frequency makes the atoms flip, chemists like Wipf can make inferences about the structure of the new molecules that have formed.
One of Wipf's prime areas of interest is a phenomenon known as "mirror- image molecules." Most naturally occurring organic substances and some synthetic ones have mirror images -- molecules that are similar, but not identical, in much the way that your right hand and your left hand are similar, yet different.
Sometimes, mirror images have unexpected beneficial properties, but others have harmful ones. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the case of thalidomide, an organic sedative that caused severe fetal damage when it was given to pregnant women in the 1950s. It turns out that it was the mirror image present in the compound that caused the drug's devastating side effects.
Since then, stringent requirements for synthetic organic molecules have been imposed: If a molecule is made and tested, its mirror image must also be fully examined. Yet it is extremely difficult and time consuming to separate and explore these mirror-image molecules. (One thing that makes the process especially challenging is that NMR spectroscopy does not reveal the differences between mirror-image molecules.)
This difficulty has led Wipf to earmark some of his National Science Foundation grant money for a project known as asymmetric synthesis. He plans to develop new kinds of reactions that make it possible to synthesize one useful molecule without creating its extraneous mirror image. Wipf's hope is to eliminate the need to separate and purify the two images.
Building a better molecule, Wipf insists, takes both creativity and patience. The rewards, he adds, are great: Though he will never get to walk around inside the structure he has built, he has the satisfaction of knowing what it is he has made, part by part, atom by atom.