Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • Behavior: It's Only Natural

    Dear NEWSWEEK: I'm dating a biologist. I want to study up and impress him, but all the textbooks are so dull. Why can't science be... sexy?--Bored With BioMy dear, what you need is "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation," 234 delightful pages of scientific wisdom dispensed by biologist Olivia Judson in the guise of Tatiana, a sort of Ann Landers in a lab coat. "I've noticed I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers' heads off first," writes a praying mantis. The good doctor responds: "Some of my best friends are man-eaters," then proceeds to explain why that's not literally true, while assuring the insect that her snacking is as natural an aphrodisiac as candlelight and Barry White tunes.The "deviant lifestyles" detailed in Dr. Tatiana's fictional column by far eclipse anything we stodgy humans do. There are hermaphroditic sea hares who wonder why everyone else doesn't have orgies all day, an elephant whose nether regions have turned green and a spoon worm who's accidentally inhaled...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    I want to be an organ donor, but I also hope to live a long time. Is there an age cutoff for donors? -Clare Van Sant, Spartanburg, S.C.Anyone can give organs or tissue as long as the donated parts are healthy. Older organs are often suitable for senior patients, and they can be used for medical research. Last year doctors transplanted a 92-year-old liver, and several live kidney donors have been 78 or older. Most eye banks have a cutoff of 65, but older corneas have been used before. "People should never rule themselves out," says Anne Paschke, of the United Network for Organ Sharing. "Doctors can make that decision when the time comes."
  • Genomes: Old Viruses Never Die

    Science gave us the ability to eradicate viruses years ago. Now it's also given us the ability to revive them. Last week, for the first time, scientists announced the creation of a virus--specifically, the one that causes polio--from no more than manufactured fragments of DNA, chemical "translators" and protein-rich juice from human cells. After piecing together the fragments, guided by the publicly available polio genome, and incubating the mixture for a few hours, Eckard Wimmer's lab produced thousands of viruses, ready to go forth and multiply.Wimmer's Pentagon-sponsored work was intended to prove a chilling point: any virus with a decoded genome can theoretically be built from scratch. Policy planners have always relied on the fact that bioterror agents like smallpox are all but wiped out and therefore hard to obtain. For now, they still are--the smallpox virus is too complex to be synthesized in today's labs. But as scientists learn how to make longer strings of DNA, building...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    Is it true that gum is never fully digested? --Kevin Keen, Wausau, Wash.This is one old wives' tale that's actually true. Gum is indigestible. Still, swallowing it is totally harmless. Chewing gum has five main kinds of ingredients--sweeteners, softeners, corn syrup, flavorings and gum base. The first four are easily broken down by the body. But the gum base is indigestible. It's also what makes gum sticky in your mouth and on your shoes. Don't worry, though--it doesn't stick to the stomach walls and build up (so no, kids, no matter what your mother says, you won't explode). That gum base is a fiber; it passes through the system in a day or two.
  • Sounds Of Sleep

    Marcel Ascue used to snore so loudly that his 5-year-old son Nathan made a joke of ZZZing whenever he came near. Tired of being a punch line (and just plain tired), Ascue, 44, finally went to the doctor and found he had sleep apnea. Last month he started sleeping with a mask, hooked to an air pressurizer, that covers his nose and forces a steady stream of air down his throat. The jokes haven't stopped yet--now his wife quips that she's sleeping with Darth Vader--but at least the snoring has.Ascue's story might amuse people who don't snore or have bed partners who do. But that's not many people. By 50, half of men and a quarter of women snore; 10 to 20 percent of Americans seek treatment for snoring each year. The numbers are expected to jump as baby boomers age, since snoring is a side effect of growing old, gaining weight and losing muscle tone. During the day the brain keeps the throat muscles taut and the airway open. When sleep descends, the muscles relax and vibrate as air...
  • Health: How To Make A Baby

    Kenny Weinstein wants to get a lot of women pregnant. No, not like that--Weinstein's company, O2 Unlimited, is bringing the Donna fertility tester to American women who are having trouble conceiving. Urine-based fertility tests have been on drugstore shelves for years, but devices like the Donna, which use saliva instead, are an improvement. Urine tests, often recommended by doctors, have to be used first thing in the morning. They offer a "window of opportunity" of 12 to 24 hours and don't indicate how far along the ovulation process is--meaning that by the time a couple can get together, the window may be closed.Busy career women will welcome the Donna and similar devices like the TCI Ovulation Tester, which gained FDA approval in January. (The Donna, now available at thedonna.com, is the original, sold abroad since 1993.) The new saliva tests can indicate ovulation as many as four days in advance and can be used at several different times during the day. And, as the FDA has noted...
  • Chips: Eat Just One

    Do we really have to quit potato chips and fries cold turkey? When researchers in Europe announced they'd found high levels of the suspected carcinogen acrylamide in starchy foods that are fried or baked, it looked bad for the crispy treats. But at a meeting of the World Health Organization in Geneva last week, scientists were less alarming. While a serving of french fries may have at least 300 times more acrylamide than the EPA allows in a glass of water, that amount is still 700 times lower than the dose that's cancerous to rats. And there's no evidence that it causes cancer in humans. So rather than warning us off chips and fries altogether, the WHO urged moderation. It also called for more studies and suggested a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables. Duh!
  • Science: Free--And In English!

    No wonder so many people feel alienated by science: all the journals use $5 words. Literally. Often inscrutable, most are also high-priced. One, the Journal of Virological Methods, goes for $3,157 annually. That's intimidating to those who want their science straight from the source and don't have connections to university libraries--some of which can't even afford many subscriptions themselves. But journals are the only place a scientist's research can legitimately be reviewed and published. Why can't the people who pay for that research--the taxpayers--get free access to it?That's the question that's been bugging Michael Eisen. In early 2003 he and colleagues plan to launch the Public Library of Science, which will provide its own articles online free and aspires to become the basis for a public, searchable database of all scientific literature--a sort of Napster for nerds. The Journal of Biology, launched last week, is also free, and venerable Science has recently decided to post...
  • Hot And Bothered

    The thermometer says 80 degrees. The heat index says 90. Does either actually tell you how it feels outside? For years, scientists have said both are unreliable. The heat index, calculated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, combines temperature and humidity--and if you've ever been outside on a windy day, you know there's more to it. The folks at AccuWeather, a forecasting service, heard that complaint and designed the RealFeel Temperature index, which you can download at accuweather.com. RealFeel also considers wind speed and solar intensity. On bizarre-weather days when those factors make a difference, the RealFeel is fairly accurate. But on most days (and nights), it's within a few degrees of the heat index--and who can tell the difference between 86 and 88? It seems the best way to find out how it feels outside is still to open a window.
  • Healthy Shocks To The Head

    Art Davis gave up on sleep six months ago. By the end of each day, Parkinson's disease would paralyze his 58-year-old body, leaving him to crawl down the hall to bed and have his wife and children lift him onto the mattress. Once there, he lay awake with pain and cramps for most of the night. But two weeks ago, for the first time in ages, Davis woke up well rested and went for a four-mile walk near his home in Warren, Ohio, as he has several times since then. "It's a miracle," he says. Actually, it's a machine. Davis now has a "brain pacemaker," a generator in his chest wired to four electrodes in his brain that silence the neurons that once malfunctioned and left him prostrate.Davis's miracle is increasingly commonplace. Fifteen thousand patients worldwide with Parkinson's and another disorder called "essential tremor" have received brain pacemakers in clinical trials over the past decade, and with FDA approval secured in January, many more are sure to follow. But stories like...
  • Your Next...

    PacemakerPacemakers and defibrillators, or implants like Dick Cheney's that shock patients out of sudden changes in heartbeat, have been around since 1959--but the old devices have always kept learning new tricks. The latest generation can communicate via phone and Internet with doctors, which should delight patients who otherwise would have to go in for checkups every three months. "This empowers the patient," says Dr. Mark Schoenfeld, who helped design one that comes with what is essentially a magic wand. Here's how it works: wave the wand over your chest to pick up signals from the generator, plug the wand into the phone line and wire your doctor a full report on how your device (and your heart) is doing. The easy-to-use, FDA-approved devices should be especially helpful for defibrillator patients who sometimes get sudden shocks that could be either lifesaving or a sign of malfunction. With one wave of the wand, the doctor can be notified--and can call to reassure or diagnose the...
  • Surgery: Not Cutting It

    If you've seen "ER," you may remember Romano, the surgeon stereotype. He's sharp, he's sarcastic, he's got a leggy blonde and more money than God. Heck, he is God. Everybody wants to be this guy--just ask him.Actually, nobody does. As 15,800 med-school students graduate this month, surgery residencies are grappling with rejections as a fourth of their slots go unfilled. What's driving students away? The residency workload, which spurred a lawsuit last month, is especially brutal for surgeons. The operating room is also a bit of an old boys' club (witness Romano), and many of the women who've flooded med schools in recent years aren't interested. Add to that the increase in HMOs, giving residents more paperwork and less time with patients, and a surgeon's salary can seem like little compensation--especially since it doesn't kick in until seven years after med school. Docs faced a similar dilemma in 1987, when surgery was flush but so few students chose internal medicine that the...
  • Spinning An Image

    After your kids have seen "Spider-Man" four times, maybe they'll want real information about the bugs. Norm Platnick is a curator at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. He talked to Tip Sheet:How common are spiders?You're probably within seven feet of a spider.Are they dangerous?Most spiders won't bite you--you don't look like prey. Most bites have no effect.Why are people afraid of them?If they were bald, they probably wouldn't attract the kind of notoriety they do.Should we like spiders?We probably wouldn't be here if they weren't around. All the crops we depend on would have been devoured by insects.AMNH houses more than a million spider specimens--available for research only. Public exhibits include Montreal's Insectarium, Durham's North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and the Philadelphia Insectarium.
  • Dna Relax, Have A Drink

    You've just come home after a 15-hour day to find the kids whining and the dog whizzing on the new carpet. Breathe deeply, count to 10, do some yoga--nah, forget it, where's the vodka? If this is you, don't blame yourself. Blame your DNA. German researchers have linked stress-induced drinking to the CRH1 gene, which helps regulate hormones that calm fears and curb anxiety. Mutant mice lacking the gene drank the same amount of alcohol as their normal counterparts until scientists subjected them to forced swimming and attacks by other mice. In three weeks the mutants tripled their drinking, and the bender was still going six months later. (The control group kept its drinking under control.) Humans carry at least 20 variants of the CRH1 gene, and some of those may be faulty. A genetic test could identify those more likely to quench their anxieties with alcohol, helping rehab centers tailor treatments for patients in danger of relapse. But as with all genetic screening, there's a...
  • Risking Life To Give Life

    The two middle-aged women sitting in Dr. Lewis Teperman's transplant-surgery office are sisters, but they don't look it. One, jaundiced and frail, is waiting to die of hepatitis C-induced cirrhosis. The other, flushed and fit, is waiting to save her. The healthy woman will find out this week if she is eligible to donate half her liver to her sister, thus endangering her own life. "The doctors keep asking me if I know the risks," she says, laughing and shaking her fist like an overeager actor. "Death is on the line!"By the time a patient gets on the list for a liver transplant, death is almost always on the line. As of April 3, the list was 17,641 names long; at least a third of those have end-stage hepatitis C, and within the year almost 2,000 will die waiting. Though more than half of Americans tell pollsters they have signed donor cards, the numbers of available cadaver organs don't add up. So in the past five years, doctors have resorted to a miracle that ought to be unnecessary:...
  • Searching For A Son

    The first thing fireman Mickey Kirby did when he heard about the attack on the World Trade Center was to strap on his gear. The second was think about his kids, three of whom work in Manhattan. Mickey Jr.? Also a firefighter, stationed in Chinatown, he was safe on paternity leave with his wife and new baby. Kelly? A Morgan Stanley customer-service rep on the fifth floor of WTC 5, she was, at that hour, still probably on the subway to work when a plane plowed into Tower One. And Chris? Why worry about Chris? Last Mickey Sr. had heard, the carpenters' union had him working on 23rd Street, far from the disaster site.But five days after the attack, 21-year-old Chris-who was working his way through night school at Bronx Community College to qualify for a firefighting job like his dad and brother-is still missing. On Monday, he left the 23rd Street job for a two-day stint on the 107th floor of WTC 2, the south tower. His sister Kelly, excited that he would be working so near her office,...
  • New York Rallies

    Of all the emotions that are being felt today in New York, one is universal: grief. Thousands of mourners-many driven not by connections to the disaster, but by sympathy-have flocked to public places over the course of the week, praying, holding flags and holding hands. By Friday night, a nationwide vigil was underway.The memorials started simply enough: step outside, light a candle, take a moment of silence.In neighborhoods all over Manhattan, people have congregated at parks, churches, intersections and fire stations. Hundreds of New Yorkers gathered Thursday in Union Square, where 19-year-old Jordan Schuster had taped a piece of brown paper to the sidewalk two days earlier. It was a way for people to express their grief.While a woman in jean shorts played the bagpipes, a throng of mourners lit candles and scribbled on the pieces of paper, now numbering in the hundreds. The messages ranged from confused ("Why did the plane have to crash?," scrawled in a childish hand) to...
  • Periscope

    Aaliyah Haughton was buried Friday next to her grandmother in White Plains, N.Y., but the controversy surrounding her death is far from over. NEWSWEEK has learned that the 22-year-old double-platinum-selling R&B singer was hesitant to board the tiny twin-engine Cessna 402B that was supposed to take her from the Bahamas to Miami last week. Sources close to the singer say she was fearful of small planes and had been expecting a larger aircraft. "She was very upset at that plane the moment she saw it," said a friend who was with Aaliyah at the airport. Instinct, which produced the video the singer was shooting in the Bahamas, reportedly offered to charter a private jet instead, which would not have arrived for several hours. But Aaliyah just wanted to get home. It was to be her last weekend off before resuming a tough schedule that included the MTV awards, promotion of her album and continued physical training for her roles in "Matrix 2" and "3."Whereas the pilot, Luis Morales III,...
  • Periscope

    Brian Regan was no 007. When the FBI arrested him at Washington's Dulles International Airport last week as he was about to board a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, they allegedly found a slip of paper with names and addresses of foreign spymasters in his shoe. But the retired Air Force sergeant--now charged with conspiracy to commit espionage--will likely rate a footnote in history because of the central role computers and the Internet played in his case. "This is really 21st-century espionage," says an FBI official.The United States was first alerted to Regan last August when the 38-year-old, who'd just retired from the military after 20 years with $53,000 in consumer debt, allegedly advertised secrets for sale in a letter. Regan, a trained cryptanalyst, had been working for the previous four years at the National Reconnaissance Office, the supersecret agency that runs spy satellites. "He had access to everything," said one source. The FBI alleges Regan mailed a letter to "Country A"...
  • Periscope

    How badly did the U.S. government bungle the investigation of Wen Ho Lee, the ex-Los Alamos scientist once suspected of turning over the country's most prized nuclear secrets to China? Last year federal prosecutors dropped most of the charges against Lee and permitted him to walk free after a federal judge said the government's case had "embarrassed our entire nation." But the most damning evidence about the Lee probe has been buried in a top-secret Justice Department report by federal prosecutor Randy Bellows. Some details of the report have begun to leak out. Last week NEWSWEEK obtained an exclusive copy of a 22-page (and recently declassified) executive summary. In it, the veteran prosecutor rips into top officials of both the FBI and Justice for what he describes as a "dysfunctional relationship" on counter-intelligence investigations. As for the Lee probe, Bellows writes, "in virtually every material respect" it was "deeply and fundamentally flawed."Bellows lambastes Energy...

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