Watching the World
Planet Earth Unique
According to astronomers, new planets continue to be discovered as scientists measure the slight wobble—caused by the gravitational pull of the planet—of the distant star the planets orbit. As of 1999, 28 such planets are claimed to exist outside our solar system. The new ones said to have been discovered are about the size of Jupiter or larger. Jupiter’s mass is some 318 times greater than that of Earth. Like Jupiter, the planets are thought to be composed of helium and hydrogen. Because of the orbital distances of those planets, it is said to be highly unlikely that any earth-size planets could coexist with them. Moreover, unlike Earth’s circular orbit of 93 million miles [150 million km], they circle their stars in oval orbits. One orbit, in fact, goes from 36 million miles [58 million km] to 214 million miles [344 million km] away from its star. “It is beginning to look like neatly stacked, circular orbits such as we see in our own solar system are relatively rare,” said one astronomer.
Spanish schoolchildren on the island of Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, are being required to learn the whistling language used for centuries by local shepherds, reports The Times of London. Originally developed as a means of communicating across valleys in the mountainous terrain, the Gomera silbo, or whistle, uses sounds to imitate syllables of speech. Whistlers put their fingers in their mouths to vary the tones, and they cup their hands so that the sound will carry—up to two miles [3 km]. Almost lost in the 1960’s, the silbo has become popular again, and the island now has an annual whistling day. There are, however, limitations. “You can carry out conversations but there are not many things you can talk about,” says Juan Evaristo, a local education director.
Children and Sleep
“Parents must set limits, not only on how late school-age kids can stay up but on what they can do before bedtime,” says Parents magazine. “Watching TV, playing computer and video games, and surfing the Net are stimulating activities that keep kids’ minds working overtime. And a full plate of after-school commitments prevents them from finishing their homework at a reasonable hour.” Research shows that sleep deprivation often has a different effect on younger children—they become hyperactive and uncontrollable, whereas adults become sleepy and quiet. As a result, when at school, sleep-deprived children lack the ability to concentrate, pay attention, retain what they learn, and solve problems. The experts say that parents need to set a time for their children to go to sleep and make it a priority—not a last resort after energy or activities run out.
According to a new United Nations report, worldwide “more than 50 million people have been infected with HIV-AIDS—the equivalent of the population of the United Kingdom—and 16 million have died,” says The Globe and Mail of Canada. “Research in nine African countries has revealed that 20 per cent more women than men are now infected with the disease” and that “teenaged girls [are] about five times more likely to be infected with HIV-AIDS than teenaged boys.” Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, describes the situation in Eastern Europe as “explosive.” The report points out that “the HIV infection rate in the former Soviet Union has more than doubled in the past two years, the steepest increase in the world.” Experts say that it is a reflection of the increase in intravenous drug use in that region. Around the world more than half of those infected with HIV-AIDS “contract the disease by age 25 and they typically die before their 35th birthday.”
Sunscreens and Cancer
“Putting on high-factor sunscreen lulls people into a sense of false security and can increase their risk of skin cancer,” reports The Times of London. “This is because they spend longer in the Sun and absorb more radiation.” Researchers from the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy, found that those using factor 30 sunscreen spent 25 percent more time in the sun than those using factor 10. Says Phillipe Autier, the study’s author: “The protective effect of sunscreen use against skin cancer, particularly melanoma, has not been demonstrated in the general population, but there are compelling data that show a strong relationship between duration of recreational sun exposure and skin cancer.” Health professionals are now warning against prolonged exposure to the sun, regardless of the level of protection a sunscreen gives. Christopher New, cancer campaign manager of Britain’s Health Education Authority, advises: “Don’t stop using sunscreens, but do remember you shouldn’t use them so that you can sunbathe longer.”
The Ideal Transport?
Pedicabs, also known as trishaws or cycle rickshas, have been in use in India for decades. However, the magazine Outlook notes that they have remained unchanged, having “a heavy wooden structure, large cast-iron chassis, awkwardly tilted seats and no gears.” In recent years, there has been much opposition to their use because of the strain put on their drivers, who are often older, undernourished men. Now, with air pollution reaching hazardous levels in India, the cycle ricksha has been given a new lease on life. A Delhi-based firm has come up with a design that features a much lighter and sleeker structure that cuts down wind resistance, a gear system that greatly reduces pedaling effort, ergonomically correct saddles, handlebars that reduce wrist strain, and roomier, more comfortable passenger seats. According to T. Vineet, the project leader, “it fits into today’s politically-correct scenario where human rights and a pollution-free environment are the buzzphrases.” Says Outlook: “The humble rickshaw could turn out to be the ideal means of transport in the 21st century.”
To date, “technology has not succeeded in replacing the impact of a letter,” states the newspaper Le Figaro. In 1999 the French postal service delivered a record 25 billion letters. Of these, 90 percent were business mail, and only 10 percent personal correspondence. Nearly half of all mail sent enclosed some form of advertising, which 98 percent of those questioned claimed to have read carefully. Each day, France’s 90,000 mail carriers, of whom 40 percent are women, make more than 72,000 rounds to deliver the 60 million letters posted daily.
The French newspaper Le Monde reported that 1999 was “an accursed year for reinsurance.” Natural catastrophes in 1998 caused 90 billion dollars of damage, of which 15 billion dollars were reimbursed by insurance companies. However, 1999—marked by earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, typhoons in Japan, floods in India and Vietnam, and other disasters—may cost insurers even more. Insurance underwriters are concerned about the increasing likelihood of major catastrophes in densely populated areas. The world’s leading insurance underwriter warns of “the devastating effects” of global warming and “the consequences of human activities on climatic conditions.”
Mount Everest Now Even Taller
“Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, is even taller than scientists previously thought, and is still growing,” says a recent Reuters report. “Using sophisticated satellite systems, climbers measured Everest at 29,035 feet [8,850 m]—about five and a half miles [8.9 km] high . . . That is seven feet [2 m] above the previous official measurement of 29,028 feet [8,848 m], made back in 1954.” The new measurement is the height of the snow-covered peak. The height of the actual rock summit underneath is still unknown. The National Geographic Society is adopting the new figure for its maps. Besides moving upward, the mountain—actually the whole Himalayan mountain range—is moving in a northeasterly direction, toward China, by 1/16 inch [1.5 mm] to 1/4 inch [6 mm] each year.