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Watching the World

Watching the World

Watching the World

Birds’ Amazing Balancing Act

Birds have an organ of equilibrium in the inner ear that coordinates their movements in flight. But this organ does not explain their ability to stand erect and walk, “since their bodies, unlike those of humans, are oriented horizontally and their tails are not an adequate counterweight,” says Germany’s Leipziger Volkszeitung. “After four years of research, animal physiologist Reinhold Necker succeeded in finding a second organ of equilibrium in pigeons,” the paper explains. Necker discovered nerve cells and cavities containing fluid in the pelvic region of birds, which evidently control their balance. “When the fluid spaces were opened,” says the report, “the pigeons were no longer able to sit erect or walk once their eyes were covered. They fell from their perches or toppled over on their sides. Yet, they were still able to fly.”

Plastic Card Donations

“A growing number of Canadian churches” are adopting “modern banking practices, introducing bank cards and credit cards as convenient ways for parishioners to make collection-plate donations,” says the Vancouver Sun newspaper. Debit machines have been placed in church halls along with “donation envelopes with options for automatic account withdrawal and credit card payment.” Individuals simply swipe their card, key in the amount they wish to donate, and then put a copy of the receipt in the collection plate. As one pastor stated: “A cashless society is where society is going. Why not the church?” A church treasurer joked: “You get air-miles on your card, plus you go to heaven for donations. Just think of it as double reward points.”

Protect Your Voice

“Voice disorders are a common but under-treated problem,” says South Africa’s Natal Witness newspaper. According to Julie Barkmeier, an assistant professor of speech and hearing sciences, such disorders are often the result of nodules, polyps, or irritations that develop on the vocal cords when a voice is misused. A popular medical textbook says that such misuse would include shouting, speaking in an unnaturally low tone, or inhaling irritants such as cigarette smoke or industrial fumes. “When [vocal cords] vibrate too much, they can smack against each other, leading to soft and swollen spots that develop into callous-like nodules,” reports the Natal Witness. The result is a hoarse, raspy voice. “If you have a pronounced change in your voice that persists for two weeks or more, you should get examined by your doctor,” the article advises. “To protect your voice, . . . don’t yell or talk loudly, don’t cough or clear your throat frequently, drink lots of water, reduce your caffeine intake, don’t smoke and, before speaking, take a deep breath. . . . Finally, give your voice a rest.”

No Longer “an Unknown Child”

Ninety years after the Titanic sank in April 1912, a small victim of that disaster has been identified, says The Times of London. His body, along with 43 other unidentified victims found floating in the water, was buried in Nova Scotia, Canada. His gravestone read: “An Unknown Child.” A team of 50 scientists, historians, genealogists, and dentists used DNA matching to identify the child as Eino Panula, a 13-month-old Finnish boy who died with his mother and four brothers. The family intended to start a new life in America, where Eino’s father, who had made the trip earlier, waited for them in vain. When nobody claimed or identified the dead child, the crew of the Canadian recovery ship “adopted” him, paying for and tending his grave. Other nameless victims of the Titanic may also be identified through DNA matching. To aid the investigation, a “maternal relative [of one of the victims] gave a blood sample just after his 100th birthday,” said The Times.

Earth Simulator

On March 11, 2002, Japanese engineers switched on the most powerful supercomputer ever built. Their goal was “to create a virtual twin of our home planet,” says Time magazine. Called the Earth Simulator, the computer is the size of four tennis courts and cost about $350 million. It performs over 35 trillion calculations per second, five times faster than its closest rival, an American military machine capable of 7.2 trillion calculations per second. “By plugging real-life climate data from satellites and ocean buoys into the Earth Simulator,” says Time, “researchers can create a computer model of the entire planet, then scroll it forward in time to see what will happen to our environment. Scientists have already completed a forecast of global ocean temperatures for the next 50 years.”

The Value of Reading

“The enthusiasm of children for reading in their spare time has a bigger effect on their educational success than their families’ wealth and class,” states The Independent of London. An international study of the reading habits of 15-year-olds found that “being more enthusiastic about reading” and being “a frequent reader” were a greater advantage than having well-educated parents in good jobs. The study found that “15-year-olds from the most deprived backgrounds who were extremely enthusiastic readers scored higher in reading tests (an average of 540) than the children of the most high-status professionals who were uninterested in reading (491),” said the paper. A survey of over 1,000 teens found that “girls are much more likely to read for pleasure than boys.” Seventy-five percent of girls compared with 55 percent of boys said that they had read a book in the past month.

A Parasite That “Plays Dead”

Brazilian researchers have discovered an ingenious ruse used by the parasites that can infect the human immune system and cause leishmaniasis, reports the Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo. The parasites exploit a normal process in the body whereby cells that are no longer needed or that become harmful self-destruct (apoptosis) and are swallowed up by scavenger cells called macrophages. The parasites mimic the molecular signals produced by cells in the early stages of apoptosis, thus tricking the scavengers into devouring them. Once inside the scavenger cells, the parasites multiply rapidly and then infect other cells. Symptoms include sores, swelling of the spleen and liver, and in some cases death. According to Folha de S. Paulo, researchers hope that the discovery of the parasite’s strategy will lead to new treatments for leishmaniasis.

Mosquito Protection

“With over 2,500 species, mosquitoes are present on the entire planet,” states the magazine México Desconocido. While both males and females feed on nectar, only the females bite. As a result, they transmit malaria, dengue, and West Nile virus to humans. How can you protect yourself from mosquitoes? The report suggests the following: (1) Avoid going outside at dusk and at night, when mosquitoes are most active. (2) Use mosquito netting, preferably impregnated with repellent. (3) Wear loose clothing with long sleeves and pants and, if necessary, a hat with netting to cover the entire head. (4) Apply repellent to exposed areas of skin. (5) Take 300 milligrams of vitamin B1 daily. This makes the perspiration of some people obnoxious to mosquitoes. (6) In swampy areas, spread mud over your skin as an emergency shield. If you are bitten, avoid scratching because bleeding can lead to infection. Apply a calamine lotion instead.