Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • Weird Stuff That Could Save the World

    God, as the hymn goes, may have made all things bright and beautiful, but for sheer weirdness first prize should go to a man-made creation instead: aerogel. A solid that's up to 99 percent gas, it is rigid to a light touch, soft to a stronger one, and shatters like glass if it's put under too much pressure too quickly; it's one of the most enigmatic of materials, as well as one of the most versatile.It can withstand the heat of a direct flame; engineers use it for insulation on oil rigs and for warmth in the insoles of hiking boots worn in the coldest temperatures on Earth. NASA uses it to trap comet dust blowing through the universe at six kilometers per second. It even works as casual, sporty jewelry—AeroGem sells a key chain with an aerogel bob on the end, and a pendant "hermetically sealed inside silver-over-titanium end caps for added strength and long-lasting, waterproof durability."The most recent headlines about aerogels, however, don't have anything to do with oil rigs or...
  • Doctors Debate Over Lyme Disease

    There's a debate raging over Lyme disease, although you'd never know it unless you've been paying close attention—because on the surface it sounds like the dullest argument imaginable. Last year, the Infectious Diseases Society of America issued new guidelines saying physicians should treat Lyme with antibiotics for no longer than 30 days. Some docs think that's wrong. It's a seemingly straightforward difference of opinion. So why has the debate dissolved into animosity, with one side suggesting that its opponents have no credibility and the other slinging deeply personal insults on the Web? And why has it now spilled out of medical journals and into the office of a state attorney general? Clearly, something other than ticks is bugging a lot of doctors.Lyme disease—the most common insect-borne ailment in America, with roughly 20,000 cases diagnosed each year and more undetected—is transmitted mostly by a well-known pest, the deer tick. But the real culprit is something even nastier,...
  • Who's the Smart Sibling?

    Ten weeks ago, Bo Cleveland and his wife embarked on a highly unscientific experiment—they gave birth to their first child. For now, Cleveland is too exhausted to even consider having another baby, but eventually, he will. In fact, he's already planned an egalitarian strategy for raising the rest of his family. Little Arthur won't get any extra attention just because he's the firstborn, and, says his father, he probably won't be much smarter than his future siblings, either. It's the sort of thing many parents would say, but it's a bit surprising coming from Cleveland, who studies birth order and IQ at Pennsylvania State University. As he knows too well, a study published recently in the journal Science suggests that firstborns do turn out sharper than their brothers and sisters, no matter how parents try to compensate. Is Cleveland wrong? Is Arthur destined to be the smart sibling just because he had the good luck to be born first?For decades, scientists have been squabbling over...
  • Joycelyn Elders on the Clash of Politics, Science

    On Thursday, President Bush's nominee for surgeon general, Dr. James Holsinger, faced blunt questioning at his Senate confirmation hearing about how he would react if he were pressured to put politics before science. "I would resign," Holsinger said.If history is any indication, he's likely to be tested on that promise. Earlier in the week, three former surgeons general—including Dr. Richard Carmona, the most recent occupant of that august office—testified before Congress that he felt intense political pressure. Carmona, who left office in July, said that the Bush administration had delayed his reports and changed his speeches on controversial issues such as smoking and stem cells. "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried," he testified. That came as no surprise to Joycelyn Elders, who served as surgeon general from 1993 to 1994 under President Bill Clinton; she was asked to step...
  • Diabetes: A 'Disease of Poverty'?

    Diabetes kills as many as AIDS, and is a big problem in poor countries. Dr. Martin Silink, head of the International Diabetes Federation, spoke with Mary Carmichael. ...
  • New Study Suggests Firstborns are Smarter

    For decades, scientists have been squabbling over the importance of  birth order like siblings fighting over a toy. Some of them say being a first-, middle- or lastborn has significant effects on intelligence. Others say that’s nonsense. The spat goes back at least as far as Alfred Adler, a Freud-era psychologist who argued that firstborns had an edge. Other psychologists found his theory easy to believe—middle and youngest kids already had a bad rap, thanks to everything from primogeniture laws to the prodigal son. When they set out to confirm the birth-order effects Adler had predicted, they found some evidence. Dozens of studies over the next several decades showed small differences in IQ, scholastic aptitude tests and other measures of achievement. So did “anecdata” suggesting that firstborns were more likely to win Nobel Prizes. Now a new study, published today in the journal Science suggests that firstborns do indeed turn out sharper than their brothers and sisters, no matter...
  • Climate: Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

    Daily life in the developed world has depended so much, for so long, on clean water that it is sometimes easy to forget how precious a commodity water is. The average American citizen doesn't have to work for his water; he has only to turn on the tap. But in much of the rest of the world, it isn't that simple. More than a billion people worldwide lack clean water, most of them in developing countries. The least fortunate may devote whole days to finding some.When they fail—and they fail more and more often now that rivers in Africa and Asia are slowly drying up after decades of mismanagement and climate change—they may turn to violence, fighting over the small amount that is left. Water has long been called the ultimate renewable resource. But as Fred Pearce writes in his book "When the Rivers Run Dry," if the world doesn't change, that saying may no longer apply.Like the famines of the '80s, the global water crisis is far more than a straightforward issue of scarcity. Accidents of...
  • New Research into Pain Treatment

    Millions of aging boomers and the latest generation of wounded soldiers hope the secrets of our most enduring medical foe can finally be unlocked
  • Can States Close the Research Funding Gap?

    Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced a plan to boost the state budget for life sciences by $1.25 billion. The proposal immediately grabbed attention for its vision of a vast stem-cell bank, the world's largest, which would open up new opportunities for embryonic stem-cell research. It's a reaction, of course, to the federal government's refusal to pay for such work. But amid the excitement over stem cells, another part of Patrick's proposal got overlooked. It, too, addresses a crisis of funding at the federal level, albeit one that has gotten far less press: the stagnating budget of the National Institutes of Health, a problem that is hurting not just stem- cell researchers but biologists at large, particularly young researchers at the most vulnerable points in their careers.The NIH was once flush with money. Its budget doubled between 1998 and 2003 on the strength of enthusiastic support in Congress. Universities responded, hiring faculty and starting ambitious...
  • Making Sense Of Melting Ice

    Every year, the cap of sea ice floating atop the North Pole dwindles from about 14 million to 7 million square kilometers—a number that would panic scientists if it weren't a normal occurrence, courtesy of nature. Most of the summer shrinkage is caused by melting, and the pack ice grows again once winter arrives, freezing the choppy water back into solid sheets. Because it's a recurring cycle, scientists have never found this phenomenon worrisome. Until this year, when Ronald Kwok of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory rang the alarm. He'd noticed that in 2005, little of the ice that had formed the previous winter had gone on to survive the summer—making the Arctic cap the smallest it had been in five decades.The polar regions are notorious shape-shifters. Complex ecosystems, they can be swayed by factors from wind to water to warming, and their forbidding climate makes on-site research difficult. As a result, they're a bit of a mystery to scientists, and their future is hard to...
  • Health: Can Exercise Make You Smarter?

    Exercise does more than build muscles and help prevent heart disease. New science shows that it also boosts brainpower—and may offer hope in the battle against Alzheimer's.
  • Higher Math From Medieval Islam

    Ancient, closely held religious secrets; messages encoded on the walls of Middle Eastern shrines; the divine golden ratio—readers of a recent issue of the journal Science must have wondered if they'd mistakenly picked up "The Da Vinci Code" instead. In stretches of intricate tiling on several 500-year-old Islamic buildings, Peter Lu and Paul Steinhardt wrote, they'd spotted a large fragment of a mathematical pattern that was unknown to Western science until the 1970s. Islam gave the world algebra, from the Arabic al-jabr, a term referring to a basic equation. But this pattern is far from basic; it comes from much higher math. "The ridiculous thing is, this pattern has been staring Westerners in the face all this time," says Keith Critchlow, author of the book "Islamic Patterns." "We simply haven't been able to read it." Now that we can, though, it is serving as a startling indication of how accomplished medieval-era Muslims may have been.No one knows what the architects of the...
  • The Hidden Risks of Laparoscopic Surgery

    When surgeons removed Carol Hurlburt's diseased gallbladder in 2005, they had to cut a long, gory incision in her abdomen, and she was still hurting when her husband developed his own gallbladder infection a month later. Richard Hurlburt, however, was a candidate for a less painful, minimally invasive procedure performed with the aid of cameras inserted through small holes in his abdomen—a "laparoscopic cholecystectomy" that would have him home the next day. But, Carol says, Richard's common bile duct, which links the gallbladder, liver and small intestine, was cut. Over the next eight months, Richard became sicker and died waiting for a liver transplant. What was supposed to be a simple procedure ended in tragedy. Determining what caused it all, and where it went wrong, has moved from the hands of doctors to the hands of lawyers. Last summer, Carol filed suit.One of the most common surgical procedures in the country, performed on 750,000 patients annually, laparoscopic gallbladder...
  • The Solution

    The Problem: To celebrate the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday, on Feb. 12, 1809, Bob Stephens, a retired scientist, is organizing more than 850 celebrations worldwide--parties with bearded impersonators, serious debates and a guy in England who's skipping work, in jest, on religious grounds. How can American proponents of intelligent design respond? The Answer: The Discovery Institute, America's major proponent of intelligent design, is sponsoring a talk on whether Darwin is "being turned into a saint for secular humanists." The institute's John West says he wants to counteract events that "bash religion." Stephens's reply: while the Darwin Day events include 500-plus pro-evolution sermons, he's publicizing the institute's event with all the others, since he rejects only those that are "really quite inappropriate." In other words, even an odd fit will survive.
  • To Reach for the Moon

    Western analysts still can't say what Beijing was thinking when it shot down one of its aging weather satellites. True, the recent test was a fine show of marksmanship, destroying a refrigerator-size target sailing at orbital speed 500 miles up (as high as U.S. spy satellites). But was it worth risking a new arms race? Was it even worth the mess it caused? The Union of Concerned Scientists says the test left some 2 million pieces of shrapnel in orbit, each one a threat to any country's passing spacecraft. That's why Washington and Moscow gave up such tests decades ago: the space lanes are already littered with too much potentially lethal debris.The drifting wreckage is a danger not only to other countries' spacecraft but to China's own ambitions for the heavens--which go far beyond blinding the U.S. military. Beijing put its first man into orbit less than four years ago. Today the Chinese are reaching for the moon. The first step, the launching of an unmanned lunar orbiter, is...
  • Longevity: The Nobel Effect

    The nobel prize isa lot more than a medal. Winners get $1.4 million and the world's best résumé line. Here's another thing to file under "life's not fair": Nobel winners also live longer. New research from the University of Warwick says that academics who get the fateful phone call from Sweden stick around about two years longer than colleagues who don't make the final list. The effect mirrors what's been seen before in Oscar winners, whose life spans grow with every statue they take home. (Tom Hanks will be with us forever.) Since only four people have ever won multiple Nobels, though--and one, Marie Curie, had a shorter life because of her prize-winning work on dangerous radiation--the researchers couldn't document a truly identical trend. Still, they were able to figure out that, as with Oscars, it wasn't the cash that did the trick. Apparently, the key to long life among Nobel laureates was simply having the bragging rights.The research has some lessons for mere mortals, too: it...
  • International Periscope

    Does the international war on terror have a new front? Earlier this month, police in western Xinjiang province swept down on a camp where, Chinese authorities say, armed Muslims were stockpiling explosives: 18 militants were shot dead and 17 arrested. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the militants were members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who had "carried out a series of violent terrorist activities" and were "associated with international terrorist forces." It was the first time China had ever claimed the presence of a foreign-linked terrorist base on its soil.For decades China has battled militants of the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighur minority who seek an independent homeland. After the U.S. launched its "war on terror" in 2001, China began to brand the separatists "international terrorists," with Washington's approval. But it never proved a foreign link. After the recent raid, however, the official Xinhua news agency claimed that Al Qaeda had...
  • Escaping A Moral Mess

    Stem-cell research is divided into two major camps: one focused on cells from adults, the other on the controversial technique that destroys embryos. Now there may be a third way--a new category of stem cells that are readily available, perhaps ethically trouble-free and possibly as powerful and as flexible in function as their embryonic counterparts: amniotic-fluid stem cells, found in both the placenta and the liquid that surrounds growing fetuses.The cells are "neither embryonic nor adult. They're somewhere in between," says Dr. Anthony Atala, a tissue-engineering specialist at Wake Forest University, who led a team that published the findings last week in the journal Nature Biotechnology. The "AFS cells" rival embryonic stem cells in their ability to multiply and transform into many different cell types, and they eventually could be hugely helpful to doctors in treating diseases throughout the body and building new organs in the lab. At the same time, the amniotic cells can be...