Watching the World
Coming Into Focus
After several embarrassing failures, NASA, the U.S. space agency, appears to have turned one fiasco into a triumph. The Hubble Space Telescope, which the agency launched into orbit in 1990, has a defective primary mirror, which prevented the telescope from focusing properly. In December 1993, though, spacewalking astronauts spent 30 hours installing corrective optics on the myopic scope and replacing obsolete instruments. The results? Reports New Scientist magazine: “In some respects Hubble is working better than originally anticipated.” According to Newsweek magazine, “Hubble’s resolution is now so fine it could spy a firefly 8,500 miles [14,000 km] away.” After seeing pictures from the now improved scope, Duccio Macchetto of the European Space Agency reportedly exclaimed: “All I can say is wow.”
School Bullies in Australia
Children at school are behaving violently at an earlier age in Australia, reports the newspaper The Australian. In that country 20 percent of children say they do not feel safe at school; 1 child in 7 is regularly bullied. Researchers comment that aggressive children tend to be low achievers who lack self-esteem. The findings suggest that film, video, and media presentations of violence definitely have an influence on youngsters. Boys are the worst offenders, and girls and school staff are the most frequent victims. Even teachers are suffering at the hands of school bullies, and many are now reluctant to deal with troublesome students for fear of reprisals. One teachers’ organization has requested that two-way radios be made available to teachers who patrol school grounds during lunch hours.
Caffeine and Pregnancy
In 1980 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended that pregnant women limit their consumption of caffeine, a chemical contained in coffee, tea, cocoa, and cola drinks. The recommendation was made primarily on the basis of experiments on animals. Since then, however, studies of pregnant women have demonstrated more conclusively the need for caution in the use of caffeine. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported recently that 75 percent of pregnant women consume caffeine, although most studies have shown that imbibing more than 300 milligrams of caffeine a day (about three cups of coffee) can damage the fetus. A newer study, though, suggests that even lower levels of caffeine—163 milligrams a day—might increase the risk of spontaneous abortion in some women. The study’s authors note: “A reasonable recommendation would be to reduce consumption of caffeine beverages during pregnancy.”
Polluted Bodies, Polluted Ecosystems
It may come as little surprise that some 3,020 people in the United States die each year after using cocaine; the drug’s polluting effects on the human body are well-known. But National Geographic reported recently that producing the drug also causes severe pollution in the rivers and streams of the Bolivian, Peruvian, and Colombian rain forests. The magazine notes: “About 308 tons of cocaine were seized worldwide by officials in 1992, according to the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration. To make that much—a mere fraction of the total—required 28 million gallons [106 million L] of kerosene, 1.1 million gallons [4.2 million L] of solvents, 295,000 gallons [1.1 million L] of sulfuric acid, 18,500 gallons [70,000 L] of hydrochloric acid, and 3,700 gallons [14,000 L] of ammonia. Much of the total amount is dumped into river systems, destroying aquatic life and polluting irrigation and drinking water.”
Prevalence of Mental Disorders
The New York Times reported early in 1994: “Close to one in two Americans—48 percent—have experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives.” A sociologist-led study of over 8,000 men and women, using face-to-face diagnostic interviews, found that the most common disorder was major depression; 17 percent had suffered it at some time in life. Fourteen percent had been dependent on alcohol at some point. The Times noted that one of the surprises of the study was that 12 percent of the women had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, half of which cases “resulted from having been raped or sexually molested.” Of all those who had suffered psychiatric disorders, only one fourth had sought professional help. Dr. Ronald C. Kessler, the sociologist who led the study, is quoted as saying: “The bad news is that there’s a lot more psychiatric disorder out there than we had thought. The good news is that many more people recover—most on their own—than you would imagine.”
Alcohol-Related Surgery Risk
Patients who have more than five drinks of alcohol daily are three times more likely to suffer post-surgery complications than are patients who drink less, according to Danish chief surgeon Dr. Finn Hardt. As the Journal of the Danish Medical Association reported recently, the misuse of alcohol has a toxic effect on practically all organ systems; it causes an increased tendency to bleed as well as heart and lung problems. Such conditions usually prompt doctors to call for longer hospitalization and more blood transfusions. Those who drink large amounts of alcohol daily also risk weakening their immune system, thereby raising the risk of infection. Examinations have proved, however, that after several weeks of abstinence, the immune system is much improved. Dr. Hardt recommends that before any surgery, patients abstain from alcohol for such a period.
Children in War
During the past ten years, about 1.5 million children have been killed in war, according to The State of the World’s Children 1994, a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund. Another four million have been disabled, maimed, blinded, or brain damaged. The number who have become refugees is estimated to be at least five million. Children have even been recruited into armies. In many countries children have been tortured and forced to watch or take part in atrocities. In one area the rape of girls has become a “systematic weapon of war.” The report says: “It seems right to conclude that the veneer of civilization has never before been worn so thin.”
A Losing Battle Against Locusts
“The UN is losing its war against locusts,” reported New Scientist magazine early in 1994. According to a recent meeting of agricultural scientists in the Netherlands, the $400 million battle the United Nations waged against locusts in the late 1980’s accomplished little. What really ended that plague was a fortuitous wind that blew the insects into the sea. Locusts breed and then swarm when an occasional rain sprinkles the desert, causing green patches of vegetation to appear. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization tries to kill locusts before they swarm, relying on satellite pictures of green patches in the desert. The problem is that the satellites miss many of the smaller patches. On the ground, local wars and lack of resources often prevent spray teams from reaching even the known breeding sites.
Do astronomers live longer than other people? German natural-science magazine Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau reports on an investigation into the longevity of people born between 1715 and 1825. During these years, 67 men who became astronomers by the age of 25 attained an average life span of 71.6 years. About half of these men were German, yet 25-year-old German males during this period had an average life expectancy of only 60.7 years. Why the bonus for stargazers? “It is possible that the high life-expectancy of astronomers is connected in some way with the quiet and tranquillity associated with their work,” reports the magazine. Or, it ponders, “perhaps simply being in contact with and engrossed in the miracles of the universe might have a positive effect on a person’s health.”
The Language of Bureaucrats
In Italy the technical and bureaucratic language of many official documents is so difficult to understand that the Italian public administration believes it must be simplified. According to the Minister of Public Functions, Sabino Cassese, “this is an administration that is no longer in contact with its citizens, that does not speak the same language.” So now public functionaries will have to start speaking plain Italian instead of “bureaucratese,” a language full of terms not in common use. The innovation was announced at the presentation of a “Style Code for Written Communications in the Public Administration.” Supplying a vocabulary of 7,050 easily understood, basic words, the dictionary aims to eliminate numerous antiquated and difficult terms that often make laws, forms, circulars, and public notices incomprehensible to the average citizen.