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News Bytes of the Week—Why pregnant women don't tip over

Arctic ice fading faster, Italian doctors get naked and more…
video game



Courtesy of DC Smackdown LLC

Why pregnant women don't tip over
There seems to be more keeping pregnant women upright than fear of toppling over and squishing their unborn child. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin examined 19 pregnant women and discovered a number of reinforcements in their backs that men lack, including a lumbar (lower back) curve that spans three instead of two vertebrae and spinal joints that are 14 percent larger and positioned differently. These enhancements allow expectant mothers to lean back by as much as 28 degrees more than normal to offset the added heft of a baby bump—up to 30 pounds on average, or the weight of two bowling balls—without destroying their backs, the investigators report in Nature. They also present evidence for similar differences between the sexes in Australopithecines (early relatives of humans), suggesting that women long ago evolved such scaffolding to compensate for walking upright while supporting their swelling wombs. (Nature)

Wave good-bye, kids—Arctic ice might be gone in five years.
Report after report has confirmed that Arctic ice is swiftly sweating off the pounds on our warming globe, but the latest findings still gave glacier-watchers the chills. During a record melting jag this past summer, the Greenland ice sheet lost 552 billion tons (19 billion tons lower than the previous low), and the volume of sea ice fell to half the volume it had four years ago. The findings—presented this week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union—prompted warnings from scientists that the Arctic Ocean might have hit a "tipping point" that could leave it clear blue by 2012, decades earlier than most had predicted. Researchers say the ice thinning may accelerate because as it melts, it reflects less sunlight, which heats the surrounding waters even more. One warm and fuzzy note: an Icelandic team uncovered a polar bear jawbone from the Arctic's Svalbard archipelago that dated to more than 100,000 years ago, suggesting that the animals are capable of weathering prolonged warm spells. (Associated Press; University of Washington; BBC)

U.K. physics on the chopping block
Physicists were stunned this week when the U.K.'s main research organization announced that it's pulling the plug on a number of key physics and astronomy projects to make up for an 80-million-pound ($160-million) budget shortfall. The Science and Technology Facilities Council, which sets research priorities and disburses government monies, said that cost overruns have forced it to withdraw support from experiments, including the International Linear Collider (a proposed follow-up to the Large Hadron Collider) and a number of ground-based telescopes, as well as trim its investments in planned space missions such as the European Space Agency's Planck spacecraft (set to study the early universe). The cuts, it noted, would amount to a 25 percent reduction in grant money over the next few years, which news accounts said also threatened the jobs of hundreds of researchers. (STFC; BBC)

Italian docs strip for money
Maybe U.K. physicists should take a page (but not a fig leaf) from staffers at the Pascale Foundation, a cancer research institute in Naples, who shed their clothing for a new calendar designed to raise money for their research. A 2004 survey by the Italian National Research Council in Rome found that Italy ranked second to last of 22 countries in research funding and personnel. Hoping to stimulate donations, 20 researchers and medical staff—mostly middle-aged guys with beer bellies—appear shirtless or in boxers in their usual medical surroundings. The black-and-white calendar, on sale for 10 euros (about $14.50) in Italian bookstores and kiosks, carries the slogan, "Without you, research is bare." Pascale director Mario Luigi Santangelo told Spiegel Online that "it takes a little bit of irony and humor to reach the people." A furry Italian chest doesn't hurt, either. (Spiegel Online)

Anadrol-50, stanozolol, dianabol, oh my!
No, that's not a list of Pfizer's soon-to-be blockbuster drugs. Those are among the substances that have been flooding the bloodstreams of some of America's most beloved ballplayers, according to the Mitchell Report, an investigation into the past 20 years of performance-enhanced baseball, referred to as "the steroid era." All told, 87 players (34 who played last season) were called out in the 409-page tome for their links to the procurement of illicit substances--including sure-thing Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens, most recently of the New York Yankees. The investigation, helmed by former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Me.) and undertaken with the permission of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, found that every team in Major League Baseball had a connection to one of the players accused of using steroids. As Mitchell told reporters in a press conference announcing the findings: "There was a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on." (ESPN)

NASA helps Martian rovers locate hot winter hibernation spots
NASA's intrepid Martian rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—are getting some earthly assistance in their quest to find a safe place to ride out the harsh Martian winter. Researchers at The Ohio State University have developed new software that compares images from the high-resolution imaging science experiment (HiRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with ground panoramas taken by the rovers to map features on the Martian surface. "HiRISE gives us 0.3-meter [one-foot] resolution on the ground, so we can combine those orbital images with ground images to identify rocks from the orbiter and the ground," Ron Li, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science, explained at a recent American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. The technology helped NASA identify a steep Martian mesa known as "Von Braun" as a promising site for Spirit to explore, but also indicated that the upward journey would prevent the rover's solar panels from accessing Mars's weak winter sun to charge its batteries and keep its essential circuitry heaters going. Instead, Spirit is expected to winter on the northern rim of a depression called "Home Plate" and travel to Von Braun next year. The Red Planet's atmosphere is thinner during its winter, which lasts roughly 23 percent of the planet's 687-Earth-day year, or about 154 sols. (A sol is a Martian day, equal to about 24.6 Earth hours.) (press release)

Video game plays on presidential politics
The road to the White House is a tough one that often turns presidential candidates into larger-than-life caricatures whose features and flaws are exaggerated and mocked. A new video game capitalizes on this practice by pitting political candidates, pundits, media figures and celebrities against one another in a digital melee called DC Smackdown. After downloading the game for $4.99, players choose one of 17 different crudely drawn characters—including presidential wannabes Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both Dem, and GOPers Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain as well as Mr. Climate Change himself, Al Gore, and "no spin" TV mouthpiece Bill O'Reilly—to duke it out with his or her adversaries. Each character is armed with a special weapon: Clinton, for example, can hurl a bottle of prescription pills at her enemies, while faux news show host Jon Stewart can toss fellow fake newsman Stephen Colbert at opponents. And the prize? The White House, of course. If only it were that simple—and fun. Sorry Mac users, although this game is not politically correct, it is just for PCs. (Associated Press)

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