Scientific American August 2011
The Latest in Science News
Sociology: How New York Beat Crime (p 74)
The crime rates in New York city has plunged to twice the extent, and for twice as long, as the decline in the national average since the 1990s, and Franklin E. Zimring examines the reasons why in this month's Scientific American. His feature argues that "high rates of homicides and muggings are not hardwired into a city's populations, cultures and institutions" and gives advice for other cities looking for similar crime-rate reductions.
Popular crime-cutting tactics include reducing drug use and locking up more people, and the assumption is that common crimes will also be reduced when these methods are employed. But by looking at crime rates, such as murders and car thefts, gathered by independent sources other than police departments, Zimring concludes that this was not the case for New York City. In the past two decades the city was able to turn around its dangerous streets through innovative and strategic methods, such as simply putting more police officers at "hotspots" of crime.
Neuroscience: How to Build a Better Learner (p 50)
It is never too early to start learning how we learn. In a feature in this month's Scientific American, Gary Stix explores new technology and research methods used by neuroscientists to explore how we learn, starting from infancy.
One set of studies Stix considers is led by April A. Benasich and her colleagues who over the past 15 years have studied over 1,000 children, some as young as four months old, in a pursuit to better understand how infants and children go on to learn language. Other studies look at how from a very early age infants start to learn and appreciate the concept of numbers. One virtue of these studies is that they could allow researchers to pinpoint which infants will later have a learning disability, and thereby allow interventions with educational remedial resources early on. However, scientists do caution parents and educators against readily believing the advertisements about games and products that claim to enhance a child's learning. As Stix points out, "The clichéd refrain-more research is needed-applies broadly to many endeavors in neuroeducation."
Science Agenda: We Need Excellent Science Teachers (p 14)
Reenergizing science and math education in the U.S. has to begin with teachers. Writing in this month's Scientific American, the editors call for swift action to step up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
Three main strategies are suggested to help the U.S. achieve better STEM education, such as giving teachers the resources and tools they need to teach and inspire. Each strategy aims to attract and retain well-trained science and math teachers by revamping the national attitude toward the whole profession. "If we do not improve STEM education," the editors write, "the U.S. will continue a decades-long slide from the middle of the pack in student achievement toward the very bottom."
Forum: How to Develop New Drugs of Mental Illnesses (p 16)
Making new medicines for central nervous system (CNS) disorders such schizophrenia and Alzheimer's will depend on a networked approach to innovation in which many organizations work together: this recommendation is made in a Forum column in this month's Scientific American.
Many big pharmaceutical companies have halted their research and development of neuropsychiatric and other CNS medicines. Kenneth I. Kaitin and Christopher P. Milne suggest that this may because CNS agents are more problematic to develop and market than other medicines. Since there are difficulties in proving whether the medicines are even successful, the large costs and long time spans associated with their creation are often felt to outweigh the benefits. Regulatory scrutiny for CNS drugs is also tough.
Despite this, the government, big pharmaceutical companies and patient-advocacy groups are beginning to come together to try to solve some of these challenges. President Barak Obama's health reform law aims to try and overcome them, in part, by setting out provisions that provide incentives for innovation in areas of unmet medical need.
The authors conclude that "the challenges of developing new neuropsychiatric medicines are greater than any one company, institution or organization can bear alone."
Human Origins: The Evolution of Grandparents (p 44)
Living long enough to be a grandparent is only a recent factor in human history but one that had profound cultural and genetic effects on our predecessors. In a feature article in this month's Scientific American, Rachel Caspari examines when and why grandparent-aged individuals became prevalent.
Elders play critical roles in many modern human societies, conveying wisdom and providing social and economic support to the families of their children. By determining at what age individuals in fossil populations of ancient humans died and calculating the OY ratio (the ratio of older to younger adults) of those groups, it is possible to determine when the proportion of older adults in human populations increased. Analyses of fossilized teeth from four separate groups of human ancestors indicate that over the course of human history, the OY ratio increased only modestly until 30,000 years ago, when it rose dramatically.
Based on her research, Caspari argues that longevity was the by-product of some kind of cultural change and "became a prerequisite for the unique and complex behaviors that signal modernity." Living to older age appears to have had important implications for the population size, social interactions and genetics of early modern humans and may even help explain how they outcompeted groups like the Neandertals.