Science deals with the big, messy soup of our world. Its eternal challenge lies in teasing out what’s truly connected from that which simply happens at the same time. Previous studies have shown the correlation between infants who are born in winter and a host of problems later in life, but no one knew why it was happening. Wintertime diseases? Higher winter pollution? It could’ve been almost anything. The questions were complicated by data showing that certain mothers, ones from a lower socioeconomic tier, are statistically more likely to have children with developmental and health problems. But they’re also more likely to give birth in the first half of the year. So what’s been causing what? To study the problem, scientists needed a way to control for things like a mother’s race, marital status and education level so they didn’t end up comparing apples to oranges.
Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, economists out of Princeton University, came up with a solution. They looked only at mothers who had given birth to more than one child—over 600,000 of them. That way, when the differences in outcomes were measured, it had more to do with when the baby was born than the particular social conditions of the mother.
What they noticed was kind of startling. For babies conceived in May, the study found more than a 10-freaking-percent increase in premature births. The average gestation length is only about half a day shorter, but it still matters. Being born prematurely is linked to all kinds of problems, including a weaker immune system, neurodevelopmental complications and impaired vision or hearing.
Clearly, this sucks and we need to find the culprit. The study’s authors think we can most likely blame the seasonal flu, which really gets roaring in January and February, when May-conceived babies are born. The 2009-2010 flu season was particularly nasty, infecting more people than usual, and corresponded to a more dramatic dip in gestation times.
Plenty more work needs to be done to see if the common winter flu is really the reason for the premature births and therefore the reason for the generally worse outcomes of babies conceived in May. Right now, it’s just an association—the outcomes could actually be caused by some other seasonal disease or by climate or temperature, which this study wasn’t able to control for. But by looking at large samples of already-existing data, Currie and Schwandt have given other researchers a strong lead for their inquiries. And knowledge inches forward once more.
A group of researchers from Tokyo University of the Arts and RIKEN Brain Science Institute have decided to tackle an interesting subject: Why do we love sad songs? It's a valid question, considering many sad songs have entered the top-40 and kept listeners on their toes while belting out minor chords over hopeless lyrics. Adele's “Someone Like You” is one example that comes to mind. These researchers not only wanted to discuss the various reasons why people listen to sad music but also to see if they could pinpoint certain characteristics within the music that pique certain emotions.
They had 44 volunteers listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music, and they basically came to the conclusion that sad music actually made people feel more positive about their own lives. They concluded that while the volunteers listened to these despairing, emotionally-driven opuses, they found “sad music to be more tragic, less romantic, and less blithe than they felt themselves while listening to it,” according to an article in Science Daily. So maybe we do listen to sad music to realize how good we have it?
This got me thinking about what sad songs I enjoy listening to, or better yet, got me thinking what my favorite sad song is. As a music journalist, that's a hard question to answer because I like different things at different times. But one sad song that did come to mind was Joanna Newsom's “Go Long,” from her 2010 album Have One On Me. It's one of those songs that if you see her play it live, it utterly kills you. I witnessed the most rough-looking dudes crying like babies when the song was over. I don't cry when I hear it, but I do really enjoy it. It's a beautiful number that dissects the “Bluebeard” story in its most poetic, morbid sense. But now I'm curious … what's a notable sad song for you?
Do you remember that part in Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams asks his students why language was invented? “To communicate,” suggests one. “No!” he replies, “To woo women.” Well, humans aren’t the only mammals that have a way of making everything about sex. Until recently, scientists believed that moths could hear sounds, but not produce them. Turns out, though, that most male moths make sounds when they want to engage in a little nookie. And not just any sounds, either—their calls are distinctly bat-like.
A sensory physiology researcher from the University of Southern Denmark, along with colleagues from the University of Tokyo, has been studying two different species of moths to find out exactly how sound is used for courtship. It’s not quite the same for everyone.
In the Asian corn borer, a moth much prettier than it sounds, males make a call that’s indistinguishable from a bat’s hunting cry. Females instinctively freeze at the sound, making it harder for the bats to find them. But in Asian corn borer society, immobility apparently equals consent, because when a female holds still, that’s when the magic of reproduction can happen.
On the other hand, male Japanese lichen moths also make sounds like bats gone a’hunting. But the females of that species aren’t fooled—they can tell the difference between a bat and a suitor. The sound the males make, then, has evolved into a specific mating call.
“The acoustic communication between bats and moths is a textbook example of the interaction between predator and prey,” says Annemarie Surlykke, the researcher from Denmark. “However, our studies show how such a system can evolve, so also moths use their ability to hear and produce sounds to communicate sexually and that they have developed many different ways of doing it. It is a beautiful example of evolutionary diversity.”
If you were wondering how moths can make sounds like bats without attracting their mortal enemies, the key seems to be volume. Moths essentially whisper their calls while only inches apart, whereas bats are pretty much just screaming through the night sky. Spooky! Since we humans aren’t equipped to hear any of it, you’ll just have to imagine what sweet nothings moths murmur to one another.
Source: Science Daily
Researchers using data from the European Space Agency's Cluster spacecraft have found evidence that a “plasmaspheric wind” is releasing a kilogram (over two pounds) of plasma from the plasmasphere into the magnetosphere every second.
I swear you’re not reading an X-Men comic. Supervillains do not appear to be involved. Yet.
The plasmasphere is a region of dense, cold plasma that surrounds the Earth. Filled with charged particles, it’s shaped like a donut and forms the inner part of the magnetosphere, the area around our planet controlled by the magnetic field.
The existence of plasmaspheric wind was theorized over two decades ago, but it’s difficult to detect. It requires fancy instrumentation and detailed measurements of moving particles in the plasmasphere. Now, the four Cluster spacecraft have provided ion measurements from the plasmasphere that support the plasmaspheric wind theory.
We need to understand what’s going on in the plasmasphere because of its effect on things like satellites, GPS and traveling astronauts. Presumably, we also need to keep one step ahead of Magneto.