Wednesday, January  16, 2002 to Friday, January 18, 2002
S a t u r d a y ,  J a n u a r y  1 9,  2 0 0 2
W e d n e s d a y ,  J a n u a r y  2 3,  2 0 0 2
Thursday, January 24, 2002 to Thursday, January 31, 2002

Life on Europa?
Saturday, January 19, 2002

Up-close view of cracks on
the surface of the ice of Europa

Excerpts from article describing suspicions that beneath the icy surface of Europa reside substantial areas of liquid water and with it, life:

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The size of ice domes and movement of ice rafts on the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, are consistent with what one could expect of melting caused by a hydrothermal vent plume, or plumes, in an ocean beneath the ice.

... Scientists know that Europa has a layer of water on its surface that is perhaps 100 kilometers (60 miles) deep, making it nearly 10 times deeper than any of Earth's oceans. The thickness of the frozen surface continues to be debated.

If hydrothermal vent plumes are contributing heat to Europa's ocean, ... the frozen surface of the ocean actually may be 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) thick on average -- instead of the 20 kilometers (12 miles) some have estimated.

And it makes it all the more possible that researchers may find microorganisms living in vent fluids on Europa, as they do here on Earth.

... Among scientists interested in Europa, a number think tidal forces generated by the gravitational tug-of-war between Jupiter, Europa and neighboring moons Io and Ganymede cause tidal flexing of Europa's icy crust, friction and then melting. ...

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Atlanta Child-beating Church Warned
Saturday, January 19, 2002

Excerpts from article detailing police efforts to counter the extremist interpretation of the christian bible which leads some to encourage public beating of children:

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A group of church-goers in America have been told they will lose their children unless they stop whipping them with leather belts.

They are members of the House of Prayer, a controversial African-American church in a down-at-heel area of Atlanta, Georgia, where six families had their children taken away.

They arrive at church in Sunday best - the women in hats and flowered-speckled dresses, the men in suits and heavily-polished shoes.

The children are immaculately turned out - the girls in party frocks, their hair tied in bows - the boys in ties and neatly-pressed slacks.

... Services here can last as long as eight hours, and they regularly feature public beatings. Young children are held in the air by church elders and whipped with a leather belt, sometimes for as long as 30 minutes.

... Beginning last March, police raided the homes of six members, and took 49 children into care. The head of child services in the county, Beverly Jones, had no other choice, she says.

"They crossed the line. It's not parents administering tough love, or discipline. This is five adults holding little kids up in the air, beating them, to the point of abuse," Ms Jones said. "It's cruelty to children."

... David and Carla Wilson have faced that agonising choice. Their seven-year-old daughter remains in care, but they would rather see her adopted than agree to the ban on whipping.

"The bible told me, 'whip them, it won't kill them.' So, you know, how can you tell me not to whip my children when they need it, you know. But, I'll never compromise with the devil. That's like compromising my soul," Mr Wilson said. ...

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Reference - Spanking Study:

Drug Promises Lovers a Whiff of Instant Passions
Sunday, January 20, 2002

Excerpts from article describing the testing of an inhalable substance which may some day provide near-instant sexual arousal to men and women:

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Scientists have developed an "instant" alternative to Viagra. The new anti- impotence drug, PT-141, is a nasal spray designed to stir the passions of both men and women within minutes.

While Viagra has transformed the sex lives of millions of couples, many have found that waiting for up to an hour for the drug to take effect removes some of the heat from the most passionate moments. That frustrating delay could soon be at an end.

The new drug acts directly on the brain cells that control sexual urges to produce effects far more rapidly than Viagra. Tests have already shown that the spray can be given safely to men; checks in women are to go ahead this month. It is expected to be available in three years.

... The new treatment is based on a protein that interacts with receptors in the brain, known as melanocortin receptors, and in doing so stimulates feelings of sexual interest. It speedily boosts desire by crossing through the lining of the nose into the bloodstream, from where it is carried to the brain. ...

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God's Games? (Mormons / Salt Lake City / Olympics)
Monday, January 21, 2002

Excerpts from article describing some aspects of the Mormon faith and its impact on the Olympic games:

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In two weeks, thousands of competitors and journalists will descend on Utah for the Winter Olympics and the strangest state in America will be thrust into the global spotlight.

... It might be the dry desert air, or it could be the psychological effects of arriving in the place reputed to be the most prohibitionist in the United States, but there is something about Salt Lake City that makes a chap desperate for a drink.

It was late, it was cold and it was dark, and I set out from my hotel with no optimism whatever. Two minutes later, I was in front of the Port o' Call, which had two huge picture windows framing dozens of people who appeared to be boozing happily. Was it a mirage?

Evidently not, because the moment I walked in, a very real doorman asked for my membership card, the prime requirement to get alcohol in Salt Lake City.

Welcome to the capital of Utah, the strangest of the 50 states. Over the next few weeks, its strangeness will be thrust before the world, because Salt Lake is the venue of the Winter Olympics, starting on February 8.

... Utah cares desperately what the world thinks because this is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the LDS, as they prefer to be known; Mormons to most of us), said to be the world's fastest-growing religion.

Three-quarters of the state's population is Mormon, and no one disputes that the church is the most powerful force here. Utah is the nearest the western world gets to a functioning theocracy. The next month is thus a crucial time for the entire religion.

... At any one time, the Mormons have 60,000 well-scrubbed missionaries knocking on doors round the world, trying to bring people in.

It is an uphill task because the Mormon gospel - resting on 19th-century revelations to the church's founder, Joseph Smith Jr, that the lost Ten Tribes of Israel settled in America before the birth of Christ - is fairly hard for most people to swallow intellectually, and because the church's prohibitions (no alcohol, no tobacco, no tea, no coffee) are very stern.

They also, famously, convert the dead, who are less resistant.

But the weight and energy of the church's efforts have produced a membership of 11m, and for many there is a distinct resonance to what the Mormons offer: friendliness, ritual,
discipline and total certainty.

This is not a religion that offers its members much opportunity for theological debate. It is authoritarian, hierarchical, gerontocratic (Gordon Hinckley, the current president and
prophet, is 92) and male-dominated. "It was explained to us," said one of my guides sweetly, "that men have the priesthood
and women have motherhood."

That certainty extends to Utah's politics, the most rightwing in the US. "The church runs the place," says John Saltas, the publisher of the mildly subversive Salt Lake City Weekly.

... "The legislature is 90% Mormon, all the state supreme court justices, all our representatives in DC, even four out of five on the liquor commission. So when the church speaks, all these groups pay heed. And their attitude is, 'If you're not with us, you're against us.' "

In a state where Bill Clinton failed even to get into the top two in the 1992 presidential election, the power is inevitably expressed through the Republican party.

... You can get anything you want in Salt Lake City, although sometimes you might have to try a little harder than elsewhere. There are smoke shops; there are coffee shops; you can't find a decent cup of tea, but that's true everywhere in the US. Mayor Anderson has even taken journalists on late-night tours to prove that they can find alcohol.

Membership of the Port o' Call and suchlike, though legally obligatory, is not exclusive. Double measures are illegal, but you can be served a separate chaser. And since the
"clubs" are open on Sunday and till 1am, the laws, though absurd, are actually less restrictive in Salt Lake City than in much of Middle America or, come to that, Saltash or

Just below the surface, there is an almost self-consciously hedonistic air about the place, as though the underlying culture clash drives non-members towards un-Mormon pleasures. In the Port o' Call, they were not wearing the Mormons' special chaste underwear; indeed some of the young ladies were wearing very few clothes at all.

... Utah has the nation's highest birth rate and is due to double its 2.2m population in 20 years. Gayle Ruzicka is the president of the Utah Eagle Forum, a "pro-family values" organisation closely allied to the Republican right. Not only is she an energetic opponent of any smack of permissiveness, she is also a mother of 12, which is not exceptional here.

... "Family is at the core of our society," Ruzicka says. "That's what makes it strong. The people I associate with here are happy people because we know what we're about.
We know why we're here on earth. We know what's expected of us. We know where we're going when we leave this earth. That's what peace and contentment is."

It is certainly true that divorce rates are lower here; likewise the drunkenness figures. And most of this seething mass of Mormon children do seem to grow up in a spirit of acceptance, going off to do their two-year missions elsewhere and then marrying other happy Mormons to produce many more children of their own.

But peace and contentment? Utah leads the US and probably the world in use of antidepressants. "In any dominant culture, particularly a religious one," Saltas theorises, "there's a whole bunch of striving for an ideal
that's often unobtainable, whether it's a spiritual one or to do with lifestyle. The body needs an escape valve. Something is depressing these people or driving them crazy; I don't know what."

Ruzicka doesn't see it that way at all. "We're very trusting people," she insists. "Doctors prescribe anti-depressants to a ridiculous extent and women in Utah are so trusting and dependent on what the doctor says. We actually have less depression here because we're a happier society."

Indeed, they want to tell us how happy they are.

... The Mormons do not stint themselves. For efficiency, the church has been compared to the Prussian army. Utahans work the longest hours in the US; they are also the best linguists, a legacy of all those overseas missions. ...

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Gondwana Split Sorts Out Mammalian Evolution
Monday, January 21, 2002

Excerpts from article detailing the evidence that the breaking apart of the supercontinent of Gondwana, over 100 million years ago, coincided with the pronounced diversification of mammals currently present on earth:

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... "Based on molecular clocks, we found that the deepest split occurs between

- Afrotheria (elephants, hyraxes, manatees and dugongs, aardvarks, golden moles, tenrecs, and elephant shrews)


- other placentals (armadillos, anteaters, sloths, carnivores [e.g., bears, cats, dogs], pangolins, whales and dolphins, even-toed ungulates [e.g., hippos, cows, pigs], odd-toed ungulates [e.g., horses, rhinos], bats, insectivores [e.g., shrews, moles, hedgehogs], rodents, rabbits, tree shrews, flying lemurs, and primates [e.g., humans, monkeys, lemurs])

at ~103 million years, a date that coincides with a major plate tectonic separation."

The result is controversial. Some researchers cite fossil evidence that suggests that mammals diversified only ~65 million
years ago.

But Springer and colleagues argue that the separation of South America and Africa around 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous in Gondwana (the southern hemisphere supercontinent that incorporated Africa, Antarctica, Australia, India, Madagascar and South America before it broke apart) explains the split.

"We suggest that the common ancestor of living placental mammals occurred not in the northern hemisphere, as is commonly
believed, but in the southern hemisphere instead, in Gondwana," says Springer.

"Furthermore, our study provides the first convincing molecular evidence that flying lemurs and tree shrews are the closest relatives to primates."

... Such deciphering of higher level relationships among mammalian orders is important because of its ramifications for evolutionary biology and genomics. ...

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Living With Volcano Hot Spots
Monday, January 21, 2002

Excerpts from article with brief references to the current state of volcano prediction:

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Scientists are closer than ever to
predicting eruptions and better protecting
the estimated half-billion people worldwide
who live near active volcanoes.

How can we know where the next eruption will occur?

An eruption has turned an area in Africa, home to 500,000 people, into a mass of scorched earth.

The volcano is called Mount Nyiragongo. It’s located 30 miles north of one of Congo’s major cities, Goma.

The lava flow has wiped out more than a dozen villages and sent hundreds of thousands running.

But what about the difficult science of trying to predict when and how a volcano will prove its spectacular and deadly power?

... An estimated half a billion people, worldwide, live close to active volcanoes. They’re not a threat, unless one blows.

Those active volcanoes, there are 1,300 of them, are mostly along weak lines in the earth’s crust. Forty are in the lower 48 states of the United States, including the most feared: Mt. Rainier in Washington State, and Long Valley in California.

Mt. Rainier is a particular concern because of its 35 square miles of glacier that could melt and trigger massive mudslides, endangering tens of thousands in the valleys below.

School children in those valleys regularly rehearse evacuations and monitors have been placed around the surrounding slope to warn of trouble.

So can volcanoes be predicted?

“The state of the art on volcano prediction is actually improving,” says Chris Newhall of the United States Geological Survey. “Every eruption that happens around the earth, we learn some new lessons.”

Scientists watch for a slight shaking of the earth, tiny earthquakes, and any bulging of terrain from gases building below.

But in Africa, the monitoring system was poor, and no one imagined lava would stream directly through an entire city. In spite of the developing science, no scientist can be sure, where or when the next volcano will blow.

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'Feel Good' Impact of Cocaine, Dopamine, and Dominance
Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Excerpts from article describing experiments on monkeys which reveal higher dopamine levels and less cocaine use among the dominant members:

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... The alpha male in a group of monkeys gets the best banana, doesn't have to fight — and is less likely than subordinate monkeys to use cocaine, scientists have observed.

... animals who became dominant after moving from solitary housing to social housing showed changes in brain chemistry that made them less likely to use drugs. But monkeys who were subordinate after the move showed no brain chemistry changes.

In the study, 20 monkeys that had been living alone in separate cages for 18 months were moved into social housing, with four monkeys to a cage.

One monkey in each group became dominant. In some groups, another monkey eventually claimed the No. 1 rank, but there was always a dominant monkey. During 3 months of living in small groups, the animals were occasionally given access to cocaine.

At the beginning of the study and again during social housing, Nader and his colleagues scanned the monkeys' brains and measured the volume of dopamine D2 receptors.

These receptors interact with the "feel-good" brain chemical dopamine, which is part of the brain's "reward system" and plays what is thought to be a key role in mood and motivation.

Previous research has suggested that people who are vulnerable to addiction may have fewer-than-normal brain receptors for dopamine. The theory is that this pushes them to make up the difference by using substances--including alcohol and other drugs--that elevate dopamine levels in the body.

In monkeys that were dominant in their groups at the time of the brain scan, the volume of dopamine D2 receptors increased 22% during the course of the study.

Conversely, in subordinate monkeys, the volume of receptors did not change appreciably.

... Furthermore, subordinate monkeys were more likely to give themselves cocaine than to choose water. Dominant monkeys didn't avoid cocaine altogether, but their intake was significantly lower than that of their subordinates.

... What we're thinking is that being the dominant male in that environment is very enriching," ... "They have access to all the food, they get groomed the most, no other monkey aggresses toward the most dominant monkey--so they live a pretty nice life." ...

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  • CBS News [link inactive]

Scientists Hunt for Asteroids and Comets
Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Excerpts from article describing scientific efforts to search for asteroids and comets and test a method to attempt to "steer" a comet away from earth:

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An asteroid impact would
devastate life / civilization

"The dinosaurs were just not smart enough to spot their nemesis coming and do something about it - but we are," says Dr Duncan Steel, an expert in the detection of meteors, asteroids and comets.

The scientist from Salford University, UK, warns that humans must learn the lessons from 65 million years ago, when it is thought the impact of a giant space rock on the planet accelerated the end of the dinosaur dynasty.

The dinosaurs could do nothing
about it - could we?

"I think it would be grossly stupid of us not to tackle it head-on," he told the BBC's World Service's Discovery programme.

Much research is being done to investigate how the Earth might protect itself against any future strike.

But with much of the southern hemisphere sky unpatrolled by asteroid and comet-seeking telescopes, it is clear our efforts to stave off some future, apocalyptic event could be stepped up.

Global disaster

To date, there is no record of anyone having been killed by an asteroid impact but the devastation that would be caused by a large one is so terrible that, statistically, you are more likely to die from a space-rock impact than in a plane crash.

When an asteroid called 2001 YB5 whizzed past the Earth on 7 January, 2002, it missed the planet by more than half a million kilometres (300,000 miles) - but, at the speed the Earth is travelling in its orbit, that distance accounts for only a few hours.

2001 YB5 was probably 300 metres (980 feet) across.

... A less frequent threat but one that could be even more deadly and even harder to predict is that of a comet.

Nasa action

Comets come from the frozen outer reaches of the Solar System and are very difficult to spot before they reach the distance of Jupiter, by which time it could be too late to plan a defence. So what are scientists doing to prevent collision?

An ambitious NASA space probe under construction plans to strike back as project worker, Peter Schultz of Brown University, Rhode Island, explains:

"We're going to have some revenge on a comet called Tempel 1 with the Deep Impact mission." The Deep Impact mission hopes to reveal the nature of the threat and how to deflect it safely.

The Deep Impact craft could
tell us how to destroy a comet

On American Independence Day 2005, Deep Impact will reach its target, the six-kilometre diameter comet Tempel 1.

The space probe will release a 350-kilogram (770 lbs) projectile into the heart of the comet at 10 kilometres per second (six miles per second). It is expected to blow a crater the size of a football field and 20 metres (65 feet) deep.

The comet will survive but should reveal the nature of its interior to add to scientific knowledge and to guide any future plans to deflect a killer comet with a nuclear nudge. ...

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