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News Bytes of the Week--Was the Red Baron Just Lucky?

City of coughing angels; Absinthe doesn't really make the art grow fonder; Giant squid dissected and more...



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Was the Red Baron just lucky?
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, was the most feared German flying ace of World War I. He racked up 80 official air combat victories—the biggest winning streak on either side—before being shot down on April 21, 1918, over northern France. We're inclined to interpret the Baron's record as proof that he was the best of the best. But a study published in the Journal of Mathematical Sociology claims that much of Richthofen's success could be chalked up to plain old luck. German records list 2,894 WWI fighter pilots, who together scored 6,759 victories (planes shot down) and only 810 defeats. Although the win ratio seems suspiciously high, electrical engineers Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury of the University of California, Los Angeles, contend they can still use the numbers to analyze the pilots' defeat rate—their total chances of being shot down after each flight. That rate started off high—25 percent for the first flight—but fell sharply; by the 10th flight it had leveled off below 5 percent, consistent with the weaker pilots getting picked off and the remaining aces having similar skills in the air. At that rate, the researchers conclude that the odds of one in 2,894 pilots racking up an 80-win streak are about 30 percent—not so remarkable after all.

Los Angeles tops list of nation's most polluted cities—again
Los Angeles still holds the crown for the smoggiest city, but Pittsburgh surprisingly took top honors in daily spikes in air pollution levels, according to the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report released this week. Meanwhile, some cities previously touted for cleaning up their act (among them: San Diego, Atlanta, Charlotte and the Baltimore–Washington, D.C. region) fell down on the job, scoring higher on the sullied air scale. "The air quality in several cities has improved, but in others, declines in pollution have stalled," ALA president and CEO Bernadette Toomey said. Cities in California dominate the list, including Fresno, Bakersfield and Visalia/Porterville. (Reuters)

Absinthe: Not an Artist's Secret to Success
Ever feel like you could write the next great novel or paint a masterpiece, if only you had the right artistic inspiration—or, short of that, could get your hands on a bit of absinthe, the mysterious green alcoholic spirit rumored to have mind-altering qualities that "inspired" the impressionists in the late 1800s? Most European countries and the U.S., worried about its potential psychological effects, had banned absinthe by the early 1900s. But it was—and still is—legal and available in Spain, where Pablo Picasso reportedly was a fan. Now new research punches holes in the enigmatic drink's allure. It turns out that it never actually contained enough thujone (a compound derived from wormwood leaves) to conjure a psychedelic muse. Instead, German researchers report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, people who drank it just got really drunk. The scientists, from the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe, examined the contents of three still-corked pre-1915 bottles of absinthe manufactured in France and found that even if a person were to ingest an entire liter of the stuff, he or she still would not consume enough thujone to have a psychedelic experience. (FYI: It's no easy task to drink a cup, let alone an entire liter, of the incredibly bitter beverage.) The team did, however, find that it is 70 percent alcohol by volume (or 140 proof), which means that it contains 20 percent more alcohol than standard vodka and gin. (Newsweek)

Models predict pause in global warming
German researchers using computer simulations of ocean temperatures are predicting that the global warming trend will pause over the next decade as changes in ocean currents prompt cooler weather. This does not mean that the overall warming trend will stop, simply that the natural variations in ocean conditions can still cool the atmosphere enough to slow the trend—at least for a little while. "Too many think global warming means monotonic relentless warming everywhere year after year," climatologist Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told the New York Times. "It does not happen that way." Good to know. (Nature)

"Colossal" squid dissected
The largest squid specimen ever examined—roughly 34 feet long and weighing in at more than 1,000 pounds was dissected in New Zealand this week. Among revelations: it was a she (no male of the species has ever been captured) and boasted the largest eyes of any squid ever nabbed. Each peeper was nearly 11 inches across and the lens in each were as much as five inches wide. All the better for seeing prey in the murky depths off Antarctica where she was caught. The beast's inch and a half long beak, however, is not the largest on record. That honor belongs to one nearly two inches long found in the belly of a sperm whale. There be monsters in the deep. (BBC)

How Alcohol Messes with Your Mind
This just in: alcohol dampens your inhibitions. While that isn't likely to knock your socks off, you might be interested to know that researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in Bethesda, Md., have figured out exactly why by scanning the brains of inebriated volunteers. The scientists asked study participants—six of whom were given a shot of alcohol intravenously—to scour pictures of faces that showed expressions of either fear, anxiety or pleasure. Several areas in the teetotalers' brains activated when they were shown pictures of fearful faces; among them, the visual cortex (the brain region responsible for processing what we see) and the amygdala (responsible for emotional fear and aversion). In contrast, only the striatum (the brain's reward center) perked up in the boozers, with activity greatest in those given the most alcohol. The significance: Imbibing apparently limits one's ability to detect potential threats. In other words, it may give you the moxie to ask a stranger in a bar for her number, but you might not notice her giant, menacing boyfriend standing nearby. The researchers report their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience. (The Telegraph)

Oh, there it is—element 122 "discovered" hanging around
Uncovering superheavy elements—numbered 112 or higher on the periodic table—is a tricky business. In 2002, physicist Victor Ninov was fired from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for falsifying the discovery of element 118, which was rediscovered four years later in high-energy particle collisions, taking its place (again) as the heaviest known element. This week, a group led by physicist Amnon Marinov of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published a preprint claiming to have isolated element 122 (for the number of protons in its nucleus) from commercial samples of purified thorium, element 90. Nobody is crying hanky panky, but researchers are highly skeptical.Marinov and company injected thorium into a mass spectrometer device, which separates charged particles according to their masses. Their paper claims that a few of the particles (about one per trillion thorium atoms) had an atomic mass of 292—too high for thorium, but potentially right for element 122, informally known as unbibium. To have lasted for this long in nature, the group notes that the element must be extraordinarily stable, with a half-life of 100 million years. Researchers do believe there is an "island of stability" for heavy elements with particular combinations of neutrons and protons. But unbibium-292 is not thought to live on that island, says physicist Ken Moody of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who adds that he'd like to see independent confirmation. Chemist Robert Eichler of the University of Bern, Switzerland, has sharper comments: "It is simply impossible to identify an element by its mass only," he says. "I really doubt that anybody seriously considers these data as an element discovery."

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