Watching the World

Record Disasters in 2000

A record number of natural disasters occurred worldwide in the year 2000, reports the reinsurer Munich Re. All told, more than 850 catastrophes were reported, killing 10,000 people and causing more than $30 billion in damages. Even though natural disasters were higher in number, economic and human losses were less severe than in the preceding year. That’s because most of the disasters happened in less densely populated areas, says the company’s press release. Storms accounted for 73 percent of the insured losses, and floods caused 23 percent. The report says that “the losses generated by natural catastrophes must be expected to continue increasing in the future” because of population growth and the rise in property values.

See-Through Envelopes

A U.S. company has developed a spray that “makes unopened envelopes transparent” without leaving a trace, reports New Scientist magazine. The spray works on all colors of envelopes and is a “non-conductive, non-toxic, environmentally safe liquid,” says company spokesman Bob Schlagel. Apart from leaving an odor for 10 or 15 minutes, “there’s no smudging of ink on the envelope or on the letter, no watermark, no evidence at all,” adds Schlagel. The product was developed to help law-enforcement agencies to detect letter bombs and other potentially dangerous packages. However, the spray could also be used to read unopened letters, which led one human rights official to call the product ethically questionable.

Bee Navigation

The ability of bees to navigate from hive to flowers and home again is well-known. But colonies of migratory bees from Assam, northern India, evidently travel hundreds of miles and then return not only to the same tree but also to the same branch where their relatives nested some two years earlier! What makes this so remarkable is that worker bees live for only three months or less. So the bees that return are several generations removed from the bees that built the original hive. How they find their way back is a mystery. The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reports that it might involve the sense of smell. Another possibility is that the surviving queen may somehow communicate information to the scout bees by a dance, showing them the direction in which to fly.

Language and the Brain

Two areas of the brain used by hearing people when perceiving and speaking language are also used by deaf people when using sign language, reports Science News. Brain scans show that “these patches of neural tissue spring to action in deaf people who are using sign language,” the report says. According to Laura-Ann Petitto of McGill University in Montreal, who headed the study, this indicates that these areas of the brain control “fundamental features of language that can be expressed either through speech or signing.” This underscores the need for further study of the human brain’s flexibility in facilitating language. Says Science News: “Considerable overlap exists between brain regions involved in spoken and signed language.”

Whitewashing Prostitution

A German court has determined that prostitution is “not fundamentally immoral,” provided it does not involve criminal coercion, reports the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Berlin’s administrative court ruled that a café in Berlin-Wilmersdorf can continue to operate, even though prostitutes use it to initiate contact with their customers and then rent rooms nearby. The judges said that their ruling reflected society’s changed attitude toward prostitution. A poll of 1,002 people showed that 62 percent felt prostitution should be recognized as an ordinary occupation. According to the judges, a second poll revealed that the majority feel that “the integration of sexual services into the economic fabric” of Germany took place long ago.

 Sleep and Memory

Sleep researchers have found that getting a good night’s sleep, rather than burning the midnight oil, “is a prerequisite to effective recall in subsequent weeks,” comments The Independent of London. Professor Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School used 24 volunteers—half of them were allowed a night’s sleep after a learning session, while the rest were kept awake all night. Both groups then slept normally for the following two nights to help the sleep-deprived group overcome their fatigue. A memory test showed that those who slept the first night “were significantly and consistently better at performing the memory task, while the second group showed no improvement, despite their catch-up sleep.” Because sleep apparently helps to consolidate memories, these findings demonstrate that substituting study for sleep—especially the earlier deep, or “slow-wave,” sleep—provides little benefit.

Chernobyl Mutation Dangers

“Plants growing near to the stricken nuclear plant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine have been found with six times the amount of genetic damage compared to normal flora,” reports The Independent of London. Researchers from Switzerland, Britain, and Ukraine planted two identical crops of wheat—one in contaminated soil and the other 20 miles [30 km] away in similar but uncontaminated soil. They then used the seeds from these crops to sow more crops in the same two locations. Although exposed to relatively low radiation, the wheat near the reactor site showed an alarmingly high rate of genetic damage, or mutation. Concerned scientists warn that chronic exposure to such radiation can have effects that are as yet unknown. These findings raise special concerns for future generations of plants, animals, and humans exposed to the Chernobyl radiation.

Men and Women Listen Differently

Researchers have determined that women use both sides of their brain for listening, while men use only one side of their brain, reports News. In a study, 20 men and 20 women underwent a brain scan while listening to a tape recording of a book. The brain scans showed that men listened mostly with the left side of their brain, which is associated with listening and speech. Women, on the other hand, showed activity on both sides of the brain. Dr. Joseph T. Lurito, an assistant radiology professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, says: “Our research suggests language processing is different between men and women, but it doesn’t necessarily mean performance is going to be different.” Other studies seem to indicate that women “can handle listening to two conversations at once,” says Dr. Lurito.

Do-It-Yourself Religion

The decline of religion is intensifying in France. This is one of the conclusions of a survey sponsored by the Catholic newsmagazine La Vie. When asked to pick from a list of 14 priorities, only 7 percent of those polled chose “spiritual quest” as being important to them. Selected ahead of spiritual pursuits were free time, professional success, personal liberty, cultural life, sex life, and material success. According to sociologists Pierre Bréchon and Gérard Mermet, the poll indicates that religion is a victim of individualization. In what sense? People “patch together” different beliefs, picking out “what seems to comply with their own way of life and thinking,” says Bréchon.

Legal Suicide

Last April the Netherlands became the first nation formally to legalize assisted suicide, reports Rotterdam’s NRC Handelsblad. The Dutch Senate approved the so-called mercy killing bill by a vote of 46 to 28. The legislation allows physicians to help end the lives of patients who are terminally ill or facing unremitting and unbearable “suffering.” Dutch lawmakers require that euthanasia patients meet the following strict guidelines: The patient’s request must be voluntary. The patient and doctor must agree that there is no reasonable alternative solution that is acceptable to the patient. At least one independent doctor must examine the patient. And the euthanasia must be performed in a medically acceptable manner.