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How to Lock Up Radioactive Waste. . .Forever!

When you imagine nuclear waste, you probably think of something glowing green that makes your skin burst and your eyes fall out. This isn’t what radiation really looks like (usually it’s invisible) or what really happens to you after exposure to it (cancer is one possibility). But one thing is certain — you don’t want radioactive materials anywhere near your body.

The problem is, you can’t just stick radioactive waste in a container and bury it. Groundwater, erosion, and other processes will eventually eat through the container and carry all that harmful radioactivity out into the world. In order to keep the waste safely locked up, scientists need to find a good geographic location, and a good container, called a waste form — one that won’t leak or break down, even after tens of thousands of years. Many power plants currently use a glass log several feet thick and wrapped in metal. But glass might not be good enough.

Rodney Ewing of the University of Michigan has been working on the waste form problem for decades. “Now, the exciting possibility and the real need is to develop waste forms that match radioactive waste to a material that’s suitable for, and performs well, in the geologic environment,” he explains. In order to expand the role of nuclear power, we need to find better ways to deal with its waste. That means separating the waste, reusing some elements, finding new and creative uses for others, and throwing away the leftovers in the safest way possible.

Ewing’s approach is to lock up radioactive waste inside a mineral, creating a brand new, synthetic material: a crystal jail for radioactivity!

Zircon is a very durable mineral that often naturally contains forms of plutonium, one of the nuclear waste products that scientists are most concerned about. Not only can plutonium be used to make weapons, but it takes 24,500 years to decay down to half of its original size. In order to keep this waste safe from smugglers, as well as rivers and lakes, scientists can make a totally new mineral out of it: “You can synthesize zircon with plutonium, by grinding a mixture of zirconia, silica, and plutonium oxide into a very fine powder, then heating it,” says Ewing. The result is an apricot-colored crystal. This does sound pretty, but for large-scale applications, the newly created zircon would be left as a fine powder or pressed into pellets. Unfortunately, the beautiful crystal structure of zircon can only hold radioactivity prisoner for so long. As plutonium decays, it shoots out alpha particles that bombard the structure from the inside. Eventually, the zircon expands, or even cracks. Jailbreak!

But there’s a solution that involves a totally different kind of mineral: “The surprise with gadolinium zirconate is that it constantly anneals and remains crystalline,” says Ewing. Basically, when plutonium shoots it with alpha particles, gadolinium zirconate (which actually isn’t related to zircon) can repair itself. This discovery of a self-healing material has exciting applications beyond nuclear waste disposal. One day a synthetic mineral like this may protect satellite electronics from cosmic rays!

Nose Wars!

Ooh, I smell a rose! No, wait; it’s a permanent marker.

Did you know your nostrils sometimes fight like competing siblings over different smells? Psychologist Denise Chen of Rice University in Texas wasn’t surprised by the result of her study that had 12 volunteers smell two very different scents at the same time — rose through one nostril and permanent marker through the other. The participants experienced an “olfactory illusion,” says Chen. “Instead of perceiving a constant mixture of the two smells, they perceived one of the smells, followed by the other, in an alternating fashion, as if the nostrils were competing with one another.” There was no pattern to how often or when the switching happened, but all 12 people experienced it.

This sensory battle actually doesn’t happen in the nostrils, but in the brain; the same thing happens if your two eyes are presented with different images, or your ears with different sounds. Instead of mixing the senses, your brain switches between them in a seemingly random back-and-forth pattern. “Although both smells are equally present,” Chen explains, “the brain attends to one of them at a time.”

Go ahead and try the experiment yourself! Get two disposable eyedroppers and fill one with a liquid such as rosewater or lemon juice and the other with something that smells very different, like coffee. Place the open end of each dropper under your nostrils (not inside!) and sniff. Be careful not to squirt yourself! What did you smell? Try the experiment with a few of your family members, and let us know at [email protected] if the results match the scientific study! You can also write to: NOSE WARS, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Less $$ Now or More $$ Later?

You choose: Do you want $70 in three days, or $110 in three months? University College London (UCL) researchers posed this question, along with others relating to lifestyle, in a study on the BBC Web site. Almost half of over 40,000 participants wanted less money sooner, and that “money-today” attitude is linked to ignoring the future in other ways. Dr. Stian Reimers of UCL explains that the respondents who chose $70 in three days were “more likely to smoke and more likely to be overweight, which may reflect a similar preference for the immediate pleasure of nicotine and food over long-term good health.” Basically, if you have trouble saving money, you’re less likely to think carefully about your decisions in general.

“One of the big questions about people’s financial planning is whether decisions to spend or save come from personal knowledge and experience of money matters or whether they reflect someone’s personality more generally,” Reimers says. It seems like the answer may be a combination of personality and experience. While the less-money-sooner respondents tended to be more impulsive, they were also generally younger, less educated, and on lower incomes than the rest of the participants. “Learning to make decisions that lead to long-term happiness, not just instantaneous gratification, could benefit us all,” says Reimers. Here are some decision-making (and money-saving) tips: Imagine how you’d feel about your decision in a year’s time, and avoid making decisions in the heat of the moment. So, did you change your mind about that $70?

Don’t Want an Electric Shock?
That’ll Be $50, Please!

How much would you pay not to get shocked? It turns out, the answer depends on a couple of different things, including how bad the pain is and the amount of money you have in your pocket. Scientists at the University College London set up a study to explore how much people are willing to spend in order to avoid pain. Thirty-four student participants got different amounts of money with the understanding that they could keep whatever they had left at the end of the study. Then, they sat down to get shocked.

Let’s imagine that you’re about to participate in this study, and you just received $100. The first pulse of electricity to your hand hurts a lot! You now have to choose: How much of your $100 would you pay to avoid getting 15 more shocks in a row just like that one? Let’s say you’re feeling brave and you have your heart set on a new video game, so you offer $50. Now, a computer randomly chooses a number between $0 and $100. If the computer chooses a number higher than your offer, you get shocked! If it’s lower, you pay your $50 and your hand is safe. Then you have to do the whole thing over again!

This study had a few interesting conclusions: The amount people were willing to pay had almost nothing to do with how rich or poor they were in their normal lives. They made decisions based on the money they had in their pockets, instead. Also, they would pay more money to avoid pain if it was going to be worse than what they’d felt before. Basically, the value of pain relief depends on the situation. Now, doesn’t that shock you?

Volcanic Explosion!

Imagine that you’re an astronaut on the International Space Station. On June 12, 2009, you look out the window to see this fabulous plume of steam and ash rising into the sky above Earth. Suddenly you realize that you’re floating safely above a live erupting volcano!

This fabulous photo shows in perfect detail what the beginning of an explosive eruption looks like. Located northeast of Japan, Sarychev Peak is one of the most active volcanoes in the Kuril Island chain. The lack of high winds kept the beautiful form of the eruption from breaking apart, and it looks like the force of the eruption blew a hole in the clouds! But that’s only one possibility. Air flowing down as the plume rises (like water flowing down off a whale as it rises out of the sea) could also form a hole, and the simple presence of the island (even without an erupting volcano) could be enough to break up the cloud layer.

The soft white cloud at the top of the eruption may be water vapor, and the brown smoke-like billows are volcanic ash. If you look closely near the ground, there is a cloud of dense, gray ash, called a pyroclastic flow, rolling down from the top of the exploding mountain. You can also see the shadow of the plume darkening the island below.

The Sarychev peak eruption lasted over a week, and during that time, airplanes couldn’t fly anywhere near the erupting volcano. Ash would have been sucked into their engines!

Body-Swap Illusion

You’d never confuse a mannequin’s body for your own, would you? Think you couldn’t be fooled? Well, think again! In a fascinating experiment called the “body-swap illusion,” neuroscientists Valeria Petkova and Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that people can be fooled into feeling like they are in a body other than their own, even if that body is plastic. “Our subjects experienced this illusion as being exciting and strange, and often said that they wanted to come back and try it again,” Petkova told Science News.

Petkova and Ehrsson demonstrated the experiment for a National Geographic video with volunteer Andrew Ketterer, an American studying at the Karolinska Institute. Ketterer had electrodes attached to his fingers to measure his reactions, and wore a virtual reality headset. The headset was hooked up to two cameras positioned over a mannequin’s eyes, so he could see the world from the plastic mannequin’s point of view. Petkova aimed the cameras toward the mannequin’s stomach, and had Ketterer look down while she brushed a marker against both his own and the mannequin’s stomachs.

“The illusion starts right from when you move your head down and look at ‘your’ body,” said Ketterer. “Then once she started brushing the pen against my stomach, I mean, it just snapped — I viewed the mannequin’s body as being my body.”

Then Petkova pulled out a knife! She dragged a kitchen knife across the mannequin’s stomach and arm. “It’s not like she’s trying to stab you with it, but you do have the reaction to pull away,” described Ketterer. During the actual study, fear registered on the electrodes attached to the fingertips of ten of 32 volunteers who experienced a body-swap. But when the knife was passed over the volunteers’ own arms, there was no fearful response.

Petkova then put on a hat with two cameras positioned over her own eyes, and shook Ketterer’s hand. He experienced the truly odd sensation of shaking his own hand! Ehrsson repeated the pretend knife-slicing over both Ketterer’s and Petkova’s arms — and Ketterer responded as if Petkova’s arm were his own.

Not every participant experienced the illusion, and it vanished as soon as the researchers brushed the volunteer’s arm or stomach without mirroring the action on the false body. However, this kind of brain trick could help scientists better understand the human sense of perception and even the sense of self. Ehrsson asked the intriguing question, “What happens if you’re in a body that’s very different from your own? For instance, an old body if you’re young, or a female if you’re a man. How could that influence the way you think about different groups of people?”

The Mystery of Blood Falls

Welcome to the coldest, bleakest, and most extreme desert in the world: the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. This is perhaps the last place on Earth you’d expect to find life. . .but it’s here. A blood red, frozen waterfall at the tip of Taylor Glacier was the clue that led scientist “detectives” to discover a hidden pool where tiny microbes thrive in total darkness and zero oxygen. The microbes breathe sulfur and iron!

These bizarre little creatures seem to be long lost cousins of similar microbes that still exist in the oceans today. Scientists think that 1.5 million years ago, when sea levels across the globe fell, one pocket of salt water got stuck beneath a glacier. Imagine a mountain slowly sliding over the top of a swimming pool! All the microbes that got stuck beneath the glacier had to either adapt to their dark, airless new world, or die. Amazingly, life found a way to survive. “I don’t know of any other environment quite like this on Earth,” says Jill Mikucki, who led the study while at Harvard. She is currently a research associate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The water these microbes call home is rich in sulfur and very salty (that’s why it doesn’t freeze even under the ice in Antarctica). Also, iron is constantly rubbed off of the surrounding bedrock by the motion of the glacier, providing a supply of food for the hidden microbe community. And every once in a while, some of the water from the trapped pool seeps up and out of the side of the glacier, where the iron oxidizes to form the striking red color of Blood Falls. Case solved!

How to Be Invisible

Hey, all you Harry Potter fans: Invisibility isn’t just wizardry any more; it’s science! Ever since researchers at Duke University in North Carolina surprised the world with the first ever “invisibility cloak” made of metamaterials in 2006, scientists have been searching for ways to cloak objects from different wavelengths of light.

Metamaterials are cool because they gain special properties from their structure, and can be created from many different base materials, including crystals, metals, and more. Some metamaterials can bend waves backwards through a truly bizarre effect called negative refraction. If you look at a straw in a glass of water, you see that it appears to bend. That’s normal, positive refraction. If the water had negative refraction, it would look like the bottom of the straw was bent backward so far that it was floating above the water! A cloaking device uses negative refraction to bend waves around an object, like water flowing around a rock in a stream.

That first “invisibility cloak” couldn’t actually hide any objects from you, because it only cloaked against microwaves, which have fairly long wavelengths (measured in centimeters) and aren’t in the visible light spectrum. Cloaking something from visible light is a more difficult problem because visible light has wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers. (A single strand of your hair is 200 times thicker than that!) Special features in a metamaterial’s structure must be smaller than the wavelength of the light to be bent. Are you still on my wavelength? Good! Making features smaller than a centimenter to bend microwaves is much easier than working on the nanoscale to bend visible light. Xiang Zhang, head of two teams of researchers at The University of California, Berkeley, was ready for the invisibility challenge. In 2008, these teams announced the first three-dimensional metamaterials that can reverse the direction of light at very small wavelengths. These materials aren’t perfect: “Both bend light at different angles depending on [the light’s] wavelength, while a real invisibility cloak should bend light equally across the spectrum,” reports Science News. Meanwhile, David Smith of Duke University is still perfecting his microwave-cloaking device. “The difference between the original device and the latest model is like night and day,” Smith says. “The new device can cloak a much wider spectrum of waves — nearly limitless — and will scale far more easily to infrared and visible light.” This means that once researchers figure out how to shrink the structure of the cloak down to the nano scale, it will be able to cloak certain wavelengths of visible light.

Manipulating light is useful for more than just invisibility; nanoscale metamaterials could contribute to the development of super high-powered microscopes with the ability to see things as tiny as DNA molecules!

Skyscraper Farms

Imagine a glass building reaching to the sky in the middle of a bustling city. Inside, an elevator takes you up, not to stores, office buildings, or apartments, but to rows of tomatoes, beans, or pumpkins. In May 2008 at the first ever World Science Festival in New York City, Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier presented his Vertical Farming ideas. He imagines a future where glass-walled skyscraper farms use natural sunlight and recycled wastewater to grow crops right in the middle of cities.

Right now, most of our food grows on acres of flat farms, which take up precious space and are vulnerable to natural disasters, pests, and seasonal weather. Meanwhile, the human population continues to increase and crowd into cities. There will most likely be about 9.2 billion people in the world by 2050! There simply isn’t enough room on our planet for regular farms to support all those human lives.

Vertical farming could feed all those people using much less land. One indoor acre equals about four to six or more outdoor acres, depending on the crop. Thirty acres worth of strawberries, for example, can be grown on one indoor acre! That’s because Despommier designed his 21-story skyscrapers to produce more energy than they consume. There’s no need for pesticides or chemicals, and the farms can recycle sludge from wastewater as topsoil (see the March 2008 “Poop! What a Waste” ODYSSEY), recirculate water to feed the plants, and produce energy by composting non-edible plant parts. Returning all these extra acres of traditional farmland to a wild state would combat global warming: More trees and shrubs would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

If vertical farms were a part of every city, tons of money and energy would be saved on transportation costs, and city kids would grow up with more fresh veggies and a better understanding of where food comes from. Despommier estimates that 150 of his buildings could feed New York City for a year. The cost of building one vertical farm would be about $84 million, according to Despommier, but it would cost only $5 million to run the farm per year, which would bring in as much as $18 million in profit, based on the rising prices of produce.

No Talking
During the Test!

But please talk beforehand. Spend just ten minutes talking to a friend before your next test, and you may get a better grade. No, you don’t have to talk about history or math or whatever you’re studying; some plain old socializing could help keep your memory sharp. So go ahead — discuss your favorite music, the movie you watched last night, or your dog’s new trick. Just make sure you stop talking when the teacher passes out the test!

Researchers from the University of Michigan gave three groups of college students a test of mental processing speed and memory. Beforehand, one group did math and crossword puzzles, another watched a TV show, and a third group talked about a social issue. The results? Talking with friends kept the students’ brains just as sharp as doing a difficult crossword puzzle. In a related study, over 3,000 participants ages 24 to 96 took an exam measuring general knowledge and working memory, then answered questions about how often they talk to friends, neighbors, and relatives. Regardless of age, gender, or income, the more socially active people tended to score higher on the exam. This doesn’t mean it’s bad to be an introvert — plenty of geniuses didn’t get along so well socially — but it does mean that spending time with your friends may help keep your mind smart and healthy. Just don’t take this as an excuse to hang out instead of doing your homework!

Have a Science Snack
Sit down and get yourself a snack — a nice crispy one! Do you have any idea how that cheese puff got so puffy? Or how those nacho chips got so crunchy? The answer is extrusion. No idea what that means? Never fear: Sajid Alavi, an engineer and assistant professor at Kansas State University is an extrusion expert.

Remember when you used to make play-dough spaghetti by squeezing it through a strainer? Extrusion works in a similar way. This delicious technology uses machines that push dough through a narrow barrel using turning screws. If you’re making pasta, the temperature must stay low. For crispy crunchy snacks like cheese puffs, you need high heat. “When you’re heating the dough and there’s a lot of water in there, the water turns to steam,” Alavi says. “It pops like popcorn and puffs up. When the dough expands, it gives you the desired crunch.”

For cool snack shapes like letters and numbers, you just need to put a special opening, called a die, on the end of the barrel and shoot.

So, that settles the question about crunchy snacks. Now, I want to know how they make those twisted, chewy strips of red licorice.

Trash Treats

Vegetarians give up meat. Vegans give up all animal products. Freegans give up money. If you went without your allowance for a few weeks, it would be tough. But what would you think if your parents all of a sudden decided to stop earning a paycheck and instead gathered the things you needed from the stuff everyone else throws away?

Freegans believe that most people are numb to the ways our greed is destroying the world. “In a complex, industrial, mass-production economy driven by profit, abuses of humans, animals, and the Earth abound at all levels of production. . .in just about every product we buy,” states the Freegan Web site, “Our hope is for people to think about mass consumption, to think about the waste we produce,” says Adam Weissman, a freegan for the past decade.

Freegans live off the leftovers of others. They find most necessities of life, including food, in the trash. Eewww! you’re probably thinking, but they’re not talking about the foul smelling black bags your mom asks you to take out. Freegans go dumpster-diving behind malls, grocery stores, bakeries, and other businesses. Foods are often discarded simply because of an advertising slogan like “made fresh daily!” or because a newer shipment of fresher vegetables has arrived. The older, but perfectly good, foods are simply thrown away.

Freegans believe in community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing. Freecycle,, allows members to give away unwanted things at local freemeets, which are like yard sales without any price tags — you just take what you need. Since Freegans don’t need very much money, many don’t work full-time, and can concentrate on supporting movements for social change. If science can’t save the world, maybe a different kind of society can.

Who Built Stonehenge?

How about the Village People? Well, that was sort of a joke. But listen to this: Although we don’t have a list of the names of the builders, Mike Parker Pearson, a professor of archaeology at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom, told New Scientist magazine reporters that he at least has found the village of the builders.

In case you’re scratching your head because you’ve never heard of Stonehenge (Welcome to Earth, by the way!), it is a circular array of large, standing stones in southwest England that is believed to be an ancient Druid temple, burial ground, or astronomy site that dates back to between 3000 and 1600 B.C.

Now, the new village was discovered during an excavation at Durrington Walls, which is about two miles from Stonehenge. At least 25 houses have been identified (and there are probably a lot more). The village — the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain — dates to about 2600 B.C. What’s more, the researchers also found 4,600-year-old debris, including burnt stones and animal bones strewn on the clay floors. “We think that we are looking at the village of the builders of Stonehenge,” Pearson told New Scientist.

The houses were located in a small valley north of Stonehenge that leads down to the River Avon. They are on either side of an avenue that leads from the river to a wooden version of Stonehenge. This discovery is outstanding because, as Pearson says, “What we have revealed is that Stonehenge is one-half of a larger complex,” referring to the stone and wooden circles. “Woodhenge,” for instance, could have been used for festivals, while Stonehenge could have been a memorial or burial site. If true, Pearson says that we are seeing a “very interesting contrast in terms of life and death.”

Chocolate Power!

It’s no secret. Chocolate can make you feel good. That’s because it contains many substances that act as stimulants — like serotonin, a chemical that helps people feel calm and relaxed. But now a new study suggests that chomping on chocolate may help your memory and increase your brain’s performance!

In a study led by Bryan Raudenbush (associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia), subjects who had consumed either milk chocolate or dark chocolate 15 minutes before taking a neuropsychological test performed better than those given carob (a chocolate substitute made from the pods of an eastern Mediterranean tree) or nothing at all.

The tests, which were designed to assess memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem-solving skills, were given to a group of volunteers on four separate occasions. On one occasion, Raudenbush and his colleagues fed the volunteers 85 grams of milk chocolate. On another occasion, the test subjects received 85 grams of dark chocolate; on another, 85 grams of carob; then, nothing at all. Each time, after a 15-minute digestive period, the volunteers tackled the tests.

Raudenbush found that the composite scores for verbal and visual memory were greatest after the volunteers had consumed the milk chocolate. Consumption of milk and dark chocolate was associated with improved impulse control and reaction time.

Now, that’s sweet!

Got a Ticket to Ride?

Hey, kids! How would you like to send something out of this world? Well, the time is near!

Maybe as early as 2008, Masten Space Systems (MSS), in Santa Clara, CA, will be ready to send an object of your choosing into space and back for $99!

The restrictions? All cargo must fit into a canister the size of a soda can (a CanSat) and weigh no more than 12 ounces. “We’ll launch anything, as long as it’s legal,” says MSS’s Michael Mealling.

About 300 CanSats are expected to fly at once aboard MSS’s XA (eXtreme Altitude) 1.0 suborbital rocket, which is still being designed. The 22-foot-tall rocket is planned to make its first commercial flight by the spring of 2008. After a 43-second burn, the XA rocket will achieve an altitude of some 60 miles straight up. After the CanSats are exposed to microgravity for several minutes, the craft will return to the launch site. As soon as one rocket blasts off and lands, another will be ready for firing within hours.

So, if you want to send Angela’s ashes or your pet salamander for a spaced-out ride, start saving your dimes. . .and then dollars. You see, the $99 price tag is only an introductory offer; later flights will cost at least twice as much. Still, it’s a cheap way to have a blast! For more information, go to

A Lousy Fit?

When was clothing invented? Well, statues and pottery dating to about 27,000 years ago show evidence of woven clothing. And sewing needles might date to about 40,000 years ago. Now anthropologists Mark Stoneking and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, are trying to push that date back even further.

Stoneking’s interest in early fashion began after he had learned that a child at his son’s school had lice. Suddenly, the light bulb of his imagination turned on. Maybe lice, he thought, could solve the “first clothing” mystery.

You see, there are two kinds of lice: head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis), which live and feed on people’s scalps; and body lice (Pediculus humanus corporis), which feed on skin but live only in clothing. “That distinction,” Stoneking told Science News, “probably arose when humans began to make frequent use of clothing.” By comparing the DNA of human lice from around the world, the researchers estimate that body lice arose from head lice about 72,000 years ago. . .give or take 42,000 years.

Not everyone agrees. Consider, for instance, Neanderthals, a species of early humans who lived in northern Europe 500,000 years ago . Since temperatures plummeted there in the winter, Ian Tattersall, who studies Stone Age beings at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, can’t imagine Neanderthals surviving without wearing animal hides or some other sort of clothing. So the head-scratching debate over early clothing is not over.

That said, we’re itching to hear from you. Let us know when you think humans first gained a fashion sense. Send your thoughts to “Fashion Bug,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458, or email them to [email protected]. The first 10 responders will receive a unisex faux scarab necklace to wear.

Which Came First:
Creativity or Thought?

Hey, what do you think? Is this a creative opening? If so, did I have to think about it to create it? Well you can argue that with your parents over dinner. Right now I have to tell you about a bunch of old shells with holes in them.

You see, these shells, which have been in the care of the Natural History Museum in London and at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris since the early 20th century, have just been identified as the earliest known example of jewelry; the shells, it is believed, were strung together to form a necklace What’s more, these shells date to 100,000 years ago. That means we humans have been creating jewelry at least 25,000 years earlier than previously believed.

What does that mean? It means, 100,000-year-old humans were using the same type of sophisticated (creative) thought that we see in humans today! It also means that origins of modern thought need to be pushed back by at least 25,000 years!

“Humans were all over Africa and the Middle East by 100,000 years ago,” professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum told Science News. Stringer believes that modern behavior was turning up all over that range. “This must go even further back,” he said, “ though we don’t know how much further back or to what place. If people were using beads, they were using them to convey a message about themselves,” Professor Stringer said. “I believe that implies there was language, which does much the same thing.”

Getting High

Superman’s leaps may soon have to be greater than a single bound if he plans to hop over buildings in Kuwait’s future City of Silk. According to Architects’ Journal, the Kuwaiti government has asked the London-based architecture firm Eric Kuhne and Associates to draw up plans for a skyscraper that could house 7,000 people.

Although the designs have yet to be made public, blueprints show the record-breaking structure to be almost twice the height of the world’s tallest building — the Taipei 101 in Taiwan, which stands at 1,670 feet. The 0.6-mile-tall skyscraper will also dwarf Burj Dubai, a building under construction in Dubai, which is expected to stand 2,300–2,600 feet tall once it’s completed in 2008.

The construction will not be without extraordinary challenges. “As a building gets taller you need more lifts [elevators], but that can consume more of the core of the building,” Mohsen Zikri, a skyscraper expert with the UK engineering company Arup, told New Scientist magazine. The solution, he says, could be to use double-decker — or even triple-decker — lifts instead of conventional ones. The design of such a tall building would also have to prevent wind from whirling around it, as this could produce powerful windstorms on the ground. Finally, Zikri notes that construction work would pose a massive logistical challenge.

As for the cost of construction. . .think sky high — say, about $150 billion!

Mold Busters?

A California teenager wants to clear the air with this scoop.

Ryan Kim, son of Long Beach allergy researcher Kenneth Kim, has conducted a study that demonstrates how an English ivy plant can rid the air of mold and other nasty pollutants.

Kim presented his findings at the 2005 annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. By his side was his paper’s co-author, Hilary Spyers-Duran, an allergy investigator at West Coast Clinical Trials in Long Beach, CA, where Kim’s father is chief executive officer.

In his study, Kim put moldy bread and dog feces in individual containers and measured how many particles spread into the air. He then placed an English ivy plant in each container, recorded what happened, and repeated the experiment.

The results? Over a period of 12 hours, the ivy plant reduced mold particulates by 78.5 percent and airborne particles of fecal matter by an average of more than 94 percent. The results appear to give the best commercial air purifiers a run for their money. In clinical tests, the best commercial air-purifying systems have reduced airborne mold particles by 72 to 84 percent.

Should your parents rush out and buy an ivy plant for your home? Well, beware! Jeffrey Siegel, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at Austin — who specializes in indoor air quality — says that English ivy is toxic when eaten and shouldn’t be placed near small children or pets. Siegel also notes that Kim’s study examined only what Ivy plants do in containers, not in entire rooms — where commercial air purifiers are tested.

Until more research is done on the effects of ivy in the home, Siegel suggests that if you want to combat indoor pollution, keep a clean house.

Lichen It!

Lichen, that grayish organism whose presence on tree bark is a great indicator of clean air, can survive in the harsh vacuum of outer space! That’s the recent finding from a European Space Agency (ESA) experiment (called the Foton project) that flew aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft May.

The experiment was the brainchild of Leopoldo Sancho from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain. Sancho placed two species of lichen — Rhizocarpon geographicum and Xanthoria elegans — in a capsule that was timed to open in Earth orbit. The lichens were then exposed for 15 days not only to the vacuum of space, but also to extreme ultraviolet radiation and temperatures ranging from minus 68 degrees Fahrenheit on the night side of Earth to 68 degrees F on the sunlit side. The capsule then sealed itself and returned to Earth.

How did the lichens react to their outer-space journey?

René Demets, ESA’s Foton project chief scientist, told New Scientist magazine that, in space, the lichens became dormant. But once they got back to Earth, “they returned to their normal activity and their DNA appeared not to have been damaged. To our big surprise, everything went fine after the flight. The lichens were in exactly the same shape as before flight.” How is that possible?

Lichens are a combination of algae and fungi, arranged in layers of cells that grow one on top of the other. Perhaps, Demets says, the outer layers protect the inner cells from damage. He also notes that lichens have a tough mineral coating that could protect them from the harmful effects of intense ultraviolet radiation. Whatever, lichens are now the most complex forms of life known to have survived prolonged exposure to space. Hmmm, this means that — lichen or not — perhaps it is possible that life can be transported between planets on, say, an asteroid or comet.

Quiet Noise

In everyday experience, if we put more noise in, we get more noise out. For instance, one person yelling is not as noisy as 100 people yelling. But noise on the microscopic level might behave in just the opposite way.

Those are the bizarre and paradoxical findings of molecular biologist Jose M. G. Vilar (Princeton University) and Spanish physicist Miguel Rubí (University of Barcelona). They found that in some microscopic systems, like living cells, adding noise can make the system less noisy. This microscopic “noise” mostly involves random fluctuations in the flow of particles in systems like cell membranes. Physicists call these fluctuations “noise” because, like static in a stereo system, they interfere with an otherwise steady signal.

In a cell, noisy static is created by fluctuations in the flow of particles through so-called ion channels in its membrane. Imagine that the particles in that flow consist of “whole people” and “half people,” and that the ion channel operates like a door. It turns out that this door will only open to let whole people through. The rate of particle flow, then, depends on how frequently the door is opened to let whole people through. The system becomes noisy when the door opens and closes, again and again, with slight variations.

But the researchers found that if they jostle some molecules around (adding some further noise to the system), the flow rate becomes smoother and more regular. Why?

Apparently, when a cell is given the molecular jitters, the doors of ion channels become, in a sense, pinned against doorjambs. So the noise levels lessen while the flow of whole people through the doors continues unimpeded.

Although the findings are mostly theoretical, Doering says that the “bottom line is that noise can be extremely beneficial. It can act as a lubricant to make things work better and smoother.”

Get in Step. . .With TV!

Yes, soon our shoes might tell us when it’s time to watch TV.

It’s true! Gillian Swan, a British senior majoring in design at Brunel University in London, has developed sports shoes that calculate whether their owner has done enough exercise to warrant time in front of the television.

Swan created the shoes, which she dubbed Square Eyes, as a final-year design project. As reported in New Scientist, the shoes contain an electronic pressure sensor and a tiny computer chip to record how many steps the wearer has taken in a day. A wireless transmitter passes the information to a receiver connected to a television, and this decides how much evening viewing time the wearer deserves and will be allowed to watch.

The design was inspired by a desire to combat growing obesity among British teenagers. Once a user has used up his or her daily allowance of television gained through exercise, the TV automatically switches off. The only way to watch more TV is to, well, get in step! How many steps? Swan says that every 100 steps recorded by the Square Eyes shoes equate to precisely one minute of TV time. So you do the math!

Death at a Snail’s Pace

Okay, we can all go to bed now and get some sleep, thanks to Jeff Garner, a mollusk biologist at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and his colleague Stephanie Clark.

You see, you’ve probably been staying awake at night wondering what ever happened to the cobble elimia and nodulose Coosa River water snails and their pal, the Cahaba pebble snail — all of which have long been thought to be extinct. But they’re not! Garner and Clark rediscovered the three snail species in their respective rivers.

Now, for a bit of trivia: Alabama is known to be the nation’s top spot for extinct and imperiled snails and mussels in riverbeds. That’s because from 1917 to 1967, many species were killed off as dams were built along the Coosa River, creating a series of reservoirs. But some of those little devils were hiding in the streams between reservoirs, where the Coosa River retains some of its original habitat. Before Clark found it in one of her dives, the Cahaba pebble snail — round, yellow, only about a quarter of an inch long — had not been spotted since 1965. Actually, Clark didn’t know what she found immediately. “Behold, there was this oddball snail under a rock,” she says. As for Garner, he knew immediately. In fact, one of the snails was his favorite, because it “sort of has teardrops around the periphery” of the shell.

The Perfect Mummy!

Is anything really perfect? Just ask Japanese archaeologist Sakuji Yoshimura (Waseda University, Tokyo). He and his team have just found “a perfect mummy” sealed in a wooden coffin that they dug up in northern Egypt.

Before they stuck their shovels into the sand, the mummy’s tomb had been “undisturbed” for more than 3,500 years. The coffin, they discovered, was painted yellow and inscribed with hieroglyphics in light blue. When they lifted the coffin’s lid, they found their mummy wearing a mask painted blue and red. Most mummies discovered have faded or muted colors on their coffins or masks, but this one still retained its vivid hues. Therefore, Yoshimura says, the find is of high academic value. It is “a perfect mummy,” he says, one that has escaped robbery and other damage.

Yoshimura also says that the hieroglyphics reveal what’s behind the mask. . .the mummified remains of a man who was an administrative officer some 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. This makes him older than the era of Tutankhamen, the pharaoh of ancient Egypt who ruled from 1336 to1327 B.C. All we need now is a name for this perfect mummy man. Send your suggestions to “Mummy Dearest,” c/o ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Red’s a Winner!

Play sports? Want to win your game? Wear red.

If you believe the results of a study by Russell A. Hill and Robert A. Barton (University of Durham, England), athletes wearing red uniforms experience a slight advantage over those wearing other colors.

As reported in Scientific American, Hill and Barton analyzed the outcomes of four sporting events in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games: boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling. (The participants were randomly assigned either red or blue outfits.) The results? The athletes in red won 60 percent of the time.

The sporting events mentioned above are all one-on-one competitions. Does “wearing red” also affect large team sports? Apparently so!

The scientists also analyzed results from the Euro 2004 international soccer tournament. The teams that had red shirts as one uniform of choice performed better, and scored more goals, when playing in red versus when sporting white or blue uniforms.

What’s so hot about the color red? Hill and Barton believe that the link between red and success is itself linked to the evolutionary psychology of color. For a variety of animals, the authors note, red coloration correlates to male dominance and heightened drive. An athlete wearing red, then, may psychologically feel superior (and therefore behave more confidently) than an opponent wearing a more submissive color. The reverse is true for the opponent, who might subconsciously feel inferior.

Of course, more research needs to be done, but one thing is for sure: If their survey is conclusive, all teams might in the future select to wear red uniforms. That would be pretty confusing, even though the playing field would be more even.

Get in Step. . .With TV!

Yes, soon our shoes might tell us when it’s time to watch TV.

It’s true! Gillian Swan, a British senior majoring in design at Brunel University in London, has developed sports shoes that calculate whether their owner has done enough exercise to warrant time in front of the television.

Swan created the shoes, which she dubbed Square Eyes, as a final-year design project. As reported in New Scientist, the shoes contain an electronic pressure sensor and a tiny computer chip to record how many steps the wearer has taken in a day. A wireless transmitter passes the information to a receiver connected to a television, and this decides how much evening viewing time the wearer deserves and will be allowed to watch.

The design was inspired by a desire to combat growing obesity among British teenagers. Once a user has used up his or her daily allowance of television gained through exercise, the TV automatically switches off. The only way to watch more TV is to, well, get in step! How many steps? Swan says that every 100 steps recorded by the Square Eyes shoes equate to precisely one minute of TV time. So you do the math!

Let’s Talk Turkey?

How do you solve the United States’ dependency on foreign oil?

Turkey droppings!

Yes, a company in Benson, MN, is close to finishing the construction of a new power plant that will burn 90 percent turkey dung and create clean power for 55,000 homes. It will be the first large-scale plant of its type in the country and the largest in the world.

The 55-megawatt plant will burn 700,000 tons of dung a year and produce fertilizer as a byproduct. What’s more, the production of power will not create any more carbon dioxide than would otherwise be emitted if the dung decomposed naturally.

In case you’re wondering, Charles Grecco, of HH Media, LLC, an investment bank that helped arrange $202 million in financing for the plant, says that turkey dung is prized over pig excrement and cow chips. Why? Well, isn’t it obvious? Turkey dung is drier, so it burns better. And, Grecco says, “there’s a lot of it.”

Pyramid of Gloom

Some 2,000 years ago, 10 people lost their heads at Mexico’s Pyramid of the Moon. No, they didn’t turn luny They literally lost their heads — as in decapitation. So say archaeologists who found the gruesome tomb at Teotihuacan, the first major city built in the Americas.

Saburo Sugiyama, a lead scientist at the dig, says that the discovery represents the remains of a ceremony that “created a horrible scene of bloodshed, with sacrificed people and animals.” The researchers found not only 10 headless bodies, thrown haphazardly and carelessly in the tomb, but also the bound carcasses of eagles, dogs, and other animals. It looks as though Mexico’s famous Pyramid of the Moon — one of the leading tourist attractions in the area — may have been the site of horrifically gory sacrifices.

“It is hard to believe that the ritual consisted of clean, symbolic performances,” Sugiyama said. “This foundation ritual must have been one of the most terrifying acts recorded archeologically in Mesoamerica.”

Why here? Sugiyama says that the Pyramid of the Moon was a significant site for celebrating state power. The sacrifices, he believes, were carried out during a time of expansion, suggesting the government wanted to symbolize growing sacred political power.

Interestingly, the site, which lies about 35 miles northeast of Mexico City, recently experienced some modern growing pains: Wal-Mart built a new store a half-mile away from the recently discovered tomb. Talk about a close shave.

More Secret Chambers?

After studying pyramid structures for some 20 years, French Egyptologists Gilles Dormion and Jean Yves Verd’hurt believe that there’s a previously unknown chamber in Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza. Now the researchers want to bore new holes in the 4,600-year-old structure — in the hope that they are right. But Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (who stands guard over the pyramid) doesn’t want any more drill-happy theoreticians near the famous monument.

Dormion and Verd’hurt describe the hidden chamber in their book, The Room of Cheops. Apparently, in 1988, the team used radar to discover what appears to be a passage and a system of closures, which may lead to a secret chamber. Now they want to verify their findings.

But Hawass has yet to budge. “There are 300 theories concerning hidden rooms and other things inside the pyramid,” he says, “but if I let them all test their theories, they will do untold damage to the pyramid, which was built with the blood of Egyptians.”

Dormion and Verd’hurt haven’t given up hope, though, and dream of the chance to investigate their theory. What would you do? Let them dig or not? Send your thoughts to “Dig It?,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Lost Island of Atlantis. . .Found?

Let’s begin at the beginning. In 360 B.C., a Greek philosopher named Plato wrote about Atlantis — an island in the Atlantic Ocean where an advanced civilization developed some 11,500 years ago. He also tells us that Atlantis sank beneath the surface of the sea, apparently, the result of some cataclysmic natural disaster. For thousands of years now, researchers of all types have debated the existence of Atlantis. Was it a legend? Was it real? If so, where is (or was) it? @dept2:Atlantis exists anywhere and everywhere (especially in the minds of believers). It has been “located” at thousands of different sites, including under the Sahara Desert, 900 miles west of the Portuguese coast, at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, and in southern Spain.

Now a Swedish geographer, Ulf Erlingsson (University College, Galway, Ireland), says that Atlantis is Ireland!

That’s right, Erlingsson is just about certain that the Emerald Isle is the lost world. He bases his theory on geographical data, claiming that the measurements, geography, and landscape of Atlantis (as described by Plato) match those of Ireland almost exactly. Atlantis was 300 miles long; Ireland is 300 miles long. Atlantis was 200 miles wide; Ireland is 200 miles wide. Atlantis had a central plain surrounded by mountains; Ireland has a central plain surrounded by mountains.

How, then, did the myth that Atlantis sank come about? Erlingsson has the answer — or so he believes. Around 6,100 B.C., he says, a monstrous wave flooded Dogger Bank, an isolated shoal in the North Sea that connected Britain and Denmark. What does that have to do with Ireland? Well, nothing really, except that Erlingsson believes that the Irish, over time, confused the sinking of the shoal with the sinking of Atlantis.

Still don’t get it? Don’t feel bad. Mark Hennessy, an Irish geographer from Trinity College in Dublin, says that Erlingsson’s theory is “extremely far-fetched.” And Colin Breen, a lecturer in maritime archaeology at the University of Ulster, says, “We know what the seabed around Ireland looks like. If there were a lost city there, we would know about it.”

But if you believe that Erlingsson is right, send your reasons to “Aer-lantis!,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Speaking of Impacts!

Be sure to look up every now and then when you’re doing your homework, because you just never know what’s headed your way. Take, for example, this story from Brenda Archer of Auckland, New Zealand.

Last June, while Archer was in the kitchen preparing breakfast, a grapefruit-size meteorite smashed through the tiled roof of her home. The space rock smashed into a couch, bounced off the ceiling, and then came to rest under a computer table.

The meteorite weighed 2.9 pounds! When it hit, Archer said, it sounded like "a bomb had gone off." She saw nothing at first but flying dust. Most fortunate was Archer’s one-year-old grandson, who had been playing nearby minutes before the space rock hit. It is the first time a meteorite is known to have hit a home on this small island nation and the ninth time a meteorite has been found in New Zealand. After drying the meteorite out in an oven (that’s what you’re supposed to do), the Archers planned to sell it or give it to a museum.

You Gotta Laugh!

Everyone’s heard that laughter is the best medicine. Now scientists are finding out why.

Allan L. Reiss and fellow researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in California report that laughter seems to activate the brain in a way that produces physical rewards — it makes us feel good!

To find out why, Reiss and his colleagues performed a controlled study. While 16 young adult volunteers read a series of 84 cartoons (some with the punch lines removed), the researchers used an imaging machine to simultaneously monitor blood flow in several regions of their brains. After the imaging session, the subjects rated the "funny factor" of the cartoons they had read. What Reiss and his colleagues found was that when a cartoon made a person laugh, a brain network in an area called the nucleus accumbens, was activated. The nucleus accumbens is known to be involved in the rewarding feelings you get after receiving a lot of money or seeing an attractive face. Reading funny clips resulted in more blood flow to this area than reading less-humorous material.

Learning more about how humor affects the brain, Reiss says, may help scientists who study depression, since the loss of the ability to appreciate humor is one of its common symptoms. Humor", Reiss adds, "often dictates if, how, and with whom we establish friendships and even long-lasting romantic relationships." And that’s no joke.

Michigan State Student on "Prime" Time!

It’s taken years. It’s involved tens of thousands of people and 211,000 computers. But the search for the largest known prime number has finally ended. And a 26-year-old Michigan State University graduate student, Michael Shafer, is the hero. He found it using an off-the-shelf Dell PC.

Shafer was a volunteer on an 8-year-old project called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. Not that it was mentally taxing. In fact, all the participants had to do was to run a mathematical program on their computers (one that did the analysis on its own) and let it run, and run, and run. Shafer ran the program for 19 days before he glanced at his computer screen and saw "New Mersenne prime found."

A prime number is a positive number divisible only by itself and one. Mersenne primes are a special category, expressed as 2 to the "p" power minus 1, where "p" also is a prime number. The number Shafer discovered is 2 to the 20,996,011th power minus 1. The number would require some 1,500 pages to write out because it is 6,320,430 digits long — more than 2 million digits larger than the previous largest known prime number.

While the discovery is a "neat accomplishment," Shafer says that it really doesn’t have any applicability. "I don’t think I’m going to be recognized as I go down the street," he says.

Bored Chimps

Yawning is contagious. Just ask any chimp. You see, a new study by James Anderson (University of Stirling in the United Kingdom) and his colleagues has found that chimpanzees yawn in response to seeing other chimps yawn.

As reported in New Scientist magazine, Anderson and his team members played videos of chimps either yawning or exhibiting other open-mouth behaviors such as grinning to six adult chimps and three infants at the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University in Japan. Two of the adults considerably increased the frequency of their yawning while watching the yawning video, while there was no difference with the others. "These data are highly reminiscent of the contagious yawning effects reported for human," the Anderson team said.

Indeed, scientific tests have demonstrated that when adult humans are shown videos of yawns, around 42 to 55 percent also begin yawning. Why humans do it is still controversial, although one suggestion is that it may have evolved as a social cue to synchronize sleep amongst a group. The discovery bolsters the idea that chimps are able to understand their own and others’ state of mind.

Joe Cool

Feeling under pressure. Too much homework? Got a lead role in your school play? Got a big game coming up in your sport? Think you can keep your cool under such stress?

First of all, lighten up! You’re too young to be sooooo stressed. The fact is, researchers say, is that young adults who keep a cool head under pressure may be less likely to develop high blood pressure as they age.

Here’s the low down. In a study of 4,000 young adults it was discovered that those who stressed out while playing a difficult video game and taking other tests were more likely to develop high blood pressure in their 40s. That’s the official word from Karen Matthews, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh who led the study. "In general," she said, "the individuals who had larger blood-pressure responses to stress had a greater risk for developing high blood pressure."

High blood pressure eventually affects up to 90 percent of Americans as they become elderly and is a leading cause of heart attack, stroke and heart failure. So the advice of the researchers is simple: "Chill!"

Homework Hype

Uh-oh. You’re not going to like this one.

Here goes: Two new studies say that our nation’s homework load is light. You heard it right. As much as you think you’re being burdened by homework, you’re not! Now, don’t toss the magazine away just yet. First, let’s look at the "facts."

According to an analysis of a wide range of homework research — by the Education Department, international surveys, the University of Michigan, and the University of California–Los Angeles, among others — most students have less than an hour of homework a night.

"The popular belief out there," says Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, "the conventional wisdom is that homework is rising and becoming onerous. That’s simply just not true."

Do you believe it?

Yet, according to a long-term federal survey in 1999, when asked how much homework they were assigned the day before, most students age 9, 13, and 17 reported less than an hour. And according to a separate study by another research group, only about one in 10 high school students does more than two hours of homework a night.

"It’s important to acknowledge that this is not true for everybody," says Brian Gill of the RAND Corp., who coauthored the second study. "All those stories about overloaded kids. . . .We’re not suggesting that kids and parents are lying. It’s just that it’s pretty clear that those stories are the exception rather than the norm."

Again, do you believe it? Let us know what you think about these studies. Send your opinion to "Think Again," ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Power to Teens!

It’s a teen’s world after all. About half the world’s population is under 25. That’s the latest news from the United Nations’ Population Fund, which just released a report announcing that today’s teenage generation is now the biggest the world has ever seen.

Right now, about 1.2 billion of the world’s 6.3 billion people are between 10 and 19, says the report. So, one in five people on Earth are adolescents. If teens stay healthy (avoid drugs, violence, and disease) and get education, they might just develop into the largest, most vibrant workforces ever seen when they reach adulthood.

The Boston Strangler: An Unsolved Mystery?

Between 1962 and 1964, a notorious strangler prowled the streets of Boston, MA, and its surrounding communities, claiming 11 definite victims. Not since Jack the Ripper had anything comparable happened. The Boston murders gave way to one of the greatest criminal searches in the history of modern crime. The Strangler was never found, but 29-year-old Albert DeSalvo, an inmate at a Massachusetts mental hospital who was serving a life sentence on unrelated crimes, confessed to the serial murders in 1965.

Although DeSalvo was never charged with the killings, many were satisfied with his admission of guilt — especially since the stranglings had stopped. In 1973, DeSalvo was murdered in prison before he could be formally charged. The question is. . . was DeSalvo really the Boston Strangler?

Well, the families of the Strangler and that of his alleged last victim (19-year-old Mary Sullivan) had their doubts, so they had the bodies of DeSalvo and Sullivan exhumed and their DNA tested.

James Starrs, professor of forensic science at George Washington University, was called in to perform the tests. His results are virtually indisputable: The DNA found on the remains of Mary Sullivan, he said, "cannot be associated" with DNA taken from DeSalvo’s remains.

Does that mean that the Boston Strangler is still at large?

Not necessarily. "This is not evidence that exonerates Albert DeSalvo," Starrs says. But it is evidence that Albert DeSalvo is most likely not the murderer of Mary Sullivan. This new development may force the police to reopen a chapter in one of America’s grizzliest crime stories.

Jack the Ripper. . .was a Painter?

Between August and November, 1888, a shadowy figure stalked London’s East End and committed a series of horrific murders. The crimes to this day remain unresolved, and the identity of the killer, popularly known as Jack the Ripper, has intrigued generations of crime buffs.

Dozens of writers over the past dozen decades have offered dozens of opinions about who they believe is the killer. For the longest time, the list of primary suspects has included a mentally ill immigrant with a reported hatred of women, the most influential doctor in Britain, a wealthy cotton merchant, and a quack doctor with no obvious medical qualifications. Now a best-selling crime novelist, Patricia Cornwell, has turned the tables. She thinks that she may have uncovered Jack the Ripper’s DNA!

Here’s the scoop.

While reinvestigating the murders, Cornwell noticed that a letter Jack the Ripper claims to have written on November 22, 1888, was on the same stationery (and had the same watermark) as that a man named Walter Sickert had used three years earlier. Sickert, a famous British impressionist artist, was on the Ripper "suspect list" about a quarter century ago, but art historians and biographers had quickly discounted him.

Cornwell didn’t. Instead, she obtained some of the letters and envelopes whose stamps Sickert was believed to have licked, and had DNA extracted. (Sickert died in 1942 and his body was cremated, so no DNA could be extracted from it.) DNA testing of material over a century old has never before been done. Nuclear DNA tests — the usual form of DNA testing — came back negative. The forensics team then attempted mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing, which provided some results. Similar "sequences" of mtDNA were found on both the "Ripper" correspondence and the Sickert correspondence.

The problem is that mtDNA sequences are not unique. Just like blood typing — where people with, say, type "O+" blood are widespread across the globe, mtDNA sequences can be found in totally unrelated people. Mitrochondria are tiny structures in each cell that supply energy for metabolism (the chemical and physical processes going on in living cells). MtDNA is distinct from the DNA in the cell’s nucleus, which contains an organism’s genetic blueprint. There are only 39 genes in mtDNA – all maternal – and it is more stable than regular DNA.

In her Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper — Case Closed, Cornwell admits that the Ripper’s DNA could be a match with the DNA of Sickert. The probability that the Sickert and Ripper DNA sequences come from the same person, she says, is 1 in 100. Well, in 1901 there were nearly 40 million people in the United Kingdom. This means that Sickert was one of approximately 400,000 people whose mtDNA shared those same sequences.

Although Cornwell has succeeded in finding a connection between Sickert and the Ripper using current DNA techniques, the little bit of DNA evidence that was recovered is only suggestive, not conclusive.

Dare to Fly After 9/11?

If the tragic events of 9/11 made you afraid to fly, consider this: It’s riskier to drive 20 kilometers than it is to fly across the United States.

That’s the assessment from a new study by psychologist Michael Sivak (University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor) and his colleague Michael J. Flannagan. Even if you account for the airline fatalities resulting from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the risk of death from driving a distance of 1,150 kilometers (the average distance of a nonstop flight in the United States) is about 65 times greater than that from flying the same distance.

Sivak and Flannagan arrived at this conclusion after analyzing data collected from 1992 through 2001. During that period, the researchers calculated that the risk of death for any particular passenger for each nonstop domestic flight was less than one in 10 million. That’s about one fatality per 15 billion kilometers traveled.

Unlike air travel — where the greatest risk is associated with takeoffs and landings — highway driving has its risk almost evenly distributed throughout the trip. For just the year 2000, the risk of death while driving long distances via interstate highways (the safest driving environment) was a little more than four per billion for each kilometer traveled (or 60 fatalities for every 15 billion kilometers traveled).

Therefore, the researchers conclude, driving on even the safest roads is riskier than flying any distance where commercial air travel is an option. In other words, flying remains a much safer way to travel than driving.

It’s Curtains for Curses!

Ever hear of the "curse of the mummy’s tomb"? If not, you can guess what it entrails. . .I mean, entails. If you’re a B–horror movie buff, there’s even a film by that name.

The mummy is sworn to protect its tomb and kill everyone who desecrates it. Well, believe it or not, some three or four tombs in Egypt have curses written in hieroglyphics on their exteriors. But the words were placed there simply to deter looters from robbing the graves in days of old. In fact, the actual translations of the curses are somewhat hilarious. The writings say things like, "Anyone who disturbs these tombs, I will ring his neck like a bird."

Now, the latest scientific study on curses, by Dr. Mark Nelson in the British Medical Journal, says that when it comes to carrying out their threats, mummies haven’t a leg to stand on.

Belief in the "curse of the mummy’s tomb" became fashionable in the 1920s, when the tomb of King Tutankhamen, a legendary Egyptian pharaoh, was discovered. You see, British archaeologist Howard Carter found the sealed crypt in November 1922. He immediately contacted his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, who dashed off to Egypt so that the two of them could open the sealed tomb together. Well, six weeks after the tomb was opened, Lord Carnarvon died –- and rumors soon spread that so too had Carnarvon’s dog, at the exact same moment as his master. The local headlines screamed "LORD CARNARVON SUCCUMBS TO MUMMY’S CURSE."

But Nelson says that the curse has no scientific credence. Using statistical analysis, he investigated the survival patterns of all those exposed to the mummy’s curse between February 1923 and November 1926 and for 11 of those not exposed. The people who might have been exposed to the curse lived to a mean age of 70 years, versus 75 years for those who were not exposed. Survival after the date of exposure was 20.8 years for those who might have been exposed, compared with 28.9 years for those who were not.

But the differences are not significant, Nelson says, because "the exposed group was older and more likely to be male. Both of these factors are predictors of an earlier death." And when you take these facts into consideration. . . well, they just about wrap up this mystery.

Forget Your Homework? Blame Mom!

Or Dad. Take your pick.

Yes, a new study shows that forgetfulness may run in the family. That’s right. Dr. Daniel Weinberger (National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD has discovered that a gene long known to be involved in memory actually comes in two types — and which type you have may decide whether you’ll remember what I’ve just said.

The "good" memory gene — the one that plays a role in building and retaining memory — is known as BDNF (if you really must know, BDNF stands for "Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor". . .happy?). The genetic variation of BDNF, known as metBDNF (don’t ask) apparently does the opposite. Weinberger says that 15 to 20 percent of the population carries the metBDNF gene.

To test his hypothesis, Weinberger created a series of memory tests. In one, more than 600 adults were simply asked to recall story events. As expected, people with the metBDNF gene performed worse than those with the BDNF.

If you have the metBDNF gene, don’t despair; the study did not find that metBDNF was related to all types of memory — just so-called "episodic memory" that involves recalling past events. Besides, Weinberger says, metBDNF may have some beneficial effects — although what those might be haven’t been discovered yet.

Forever Young

If you can’t remember the previous scoop, don’t fret; this doesn’t mean that you’re getting old fast. In fact, scientists have just found proof that you really are only as old as you feel.

Sherry J. Holladay (Eastern Illinois University in Charleston) and colleagues were curious to see if the thought of growing old impacts the way young people live their lives. . .as they get older.

To find out, the researchers asked 104 people 18 to 77 to recall one memorable message they’ve heard about aging and to describe how that message has influenced them, if it did. (Of course, if you have the metBDNF gene, remembering a message might be a challenge in itself.)

Nevertheless, the researchers easily divided the recalled messages into two types: (1) those dealing with enjoying life, such as, "You’re only young once, enjoy it while you can," and (2) those having to do with age being a state of mind, like, "Getting old and being old are two different things." Most messages put a positive spin on the aging process.

After the task, one volunteer wrote of aging: "I now see it as an award for leading a decent life." Another said: "It has shown me that aging is not a bad thing. It will be a time where I can relax and watch my family grow."

So, feel good that feeling good about yourself as you age can have a positive effect on your mental and physical well-being.

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