Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • ASTRONOMY: THIRD ROCK FROM GLIESE

    The earth, says "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," is quite nondescript in the cosmic scheme of things. Its distinguishing feature: that it's "mostly harmless." If author Douglas Adams were alive he'd probably say the same thing about Gliese 876, a dwarf star in the constellation Aquarius that's only 2 percent as bright as the sun and until now hasn't attracted much attention. But Gliese 876 isn't as unassuming as it seems. The star is orbited by at least three planets. Two of them are typical giant balls of gas, but last week astronomers announced that the third one has some eerie similarities to ours. The as-yet-unnamed planet is the smallest ever detected outside our solar system, and, like Earth, it's rocky. Because it's just 8,640,797,039, 500,000 miles from its "sun"--next door in astronomical terms--it can get as hot as 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The new planet probably doesn't harbor life or even liquid water (though things could literally get steamy at those temperatures)...
  • EXTINCTION: 'SUPERPREDATOR' ATTACK! (IN 10 MILLIO

    The laws of nature sound like they were drafted in ivory towers: Boyle's law, Bernoulli's principle, the three laws of thermodynamics. But if Polish physicist Adam Lipowski is right, scientists may soon add a more common-sense axiom: what goes around comes around. Every 26 million years or so, a mass extinction wipes out most of the world's species, and it's usually blamed on a meteorite or an act of God. (The next one's not due for another 10 million years.) But after modeling evolution on a computer, Lipowski noticed that genetic mutations, accumulating over millennia, regularly produce "superpredators"--killers so powerful that they destroy the entire food chain, including themselves. That means the culprits behind mass extinction may not be meteorites, but meat eaters.Who were Earth's great superpredators? Scientists aren't sure, and Lipowski says that looks can be deceiving. "For all we know, it could be a bacterium," he says. "It doesn't have to eat all the other species--it...
  • THE RIGHT TIME FOR A CURE

    For diseases ranging from asthma and arthritis to cancer, the cure may be all in the timing. Until recently, most Western docs didn't think it particularly mattered when patients took their drugs, as long as they took them. But the human body has a biological clock, and its biochemistry can vary according to the time of day, month or year, as well as the phases of the sleep cycle. Now, studies are starting to show that following those rhythms can boost a drug's powers.Like so many new ideas in Western medicine, chronotherapy has roots in the East. Chinese medicine posits that Qi, or energy, flows throughout the body in a specific 24-hour pattern, divided into two hours per major internal organ. An energy imbalance in the lungs, the theory goes, will manifest sometime between 3 and 5 a.m. And doctors have indeed found that during the same time period, asthma sufferers tend to struggle more than ever as changing levels of cortical hormones and epinephrine make it more difficult to...
  • ORGANS UNDER CONSTRUCTION

    When Amit Patel says he operates in three different time zones, he's not just complaining about his constant jet lag. Patel, a heart surgeon, is based at the University of Pittsburgh. But in the last four years, he's done his most exciting experimental work in South America, cracking his patients' chests, looking for blockages in their vessels--and then, if he can't clear the obstructions, injecting the patients' hearts with stem cells drawn and cultured from their own bone marrow. Patel has been deluged by hopeful heart-failure sufferers. Since he can't see them all, he refers some of them to Bangkok. Surgeons can perform a similar procedure there, but they lack the facilities to culture stem cells. So those patients' cells are sent on a global odyssey: harvested in Thailand, loaded onto a daily El Al flight, cultured in Israel, returned to Bangkok and finally shot back into the body from which they were derived. Literally and metaphorically, those stem cells have come a long way...
  • THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

    The human genome project may be near completion, but the "real" human-genome project is just getting underway. Scientists now know the sequences of most of our genes. But they don't necessarily know how those genes work or, considering that most of the genome is "junk" DNA that doesn't contribute to the body's normal functioning, whether they work at all. In other words, we've got all the pieces, but we still need to put the puzzle together. Many of the geneticists who worked on the original HGP are now pursuing follow-up projects on their "genes of interest." Here are four who will help give us the complete picture.The Matchmaker Leroy Hood is given to car metaphors. "If you want to understand a car, you can't just study the carburetor," he says. "You need to study all the parts and how they function together as the car travels." If that's true, Hood must be the world's best mechanic (metaphorically speaking, of course). When he first went to Caltech in 1970 on a three-year...
  • HEALTH: A WIN-NING FORMULA?

    For a type of germ most often described as "common," the rhinovirus is a thing of ingenious design, a bug with a thousand ever-mutating faces. If you're unlucky enough to have a rhinovirus in your body, you might have a few more choice descriptions, too: it's the cause of most colds. Rhinoviruses, like several other nasty bugs including polio and coxsackievirus, are capable of changing the shape of their outer walls ever so subtly, disguising themselves from antibodies. Once inside a cell, the virus morphs again, opening flaps in its membrane and letting loose genetic material. Scientists have been stymied as to how to stop the process. But researchers at Purdue University have recently figured out one trick: since the virus is so versatile, why not target it with a drug that's equally flexible? WIN compounds, which Purdue's Carol Post describes as "long, greasy molecules," can contort themselves to fit through a tiny hole in the virus's shape-shifting shell, and then tangle...
  • SHOPPING THE PYRAMID

    If the USDA thought it had a winner with its flashy new food pyramid and Web site, it certainly had some early evidence. In its first 24 hours, MyPyramid.gov received 48 million hits--enough traffic to temporarily crash the site, as eager users checked out the formula, which can be customized according to age, gender and activity level. Critics of the old pyramid--and there were many--rained praise on the new one. Dun Gifford, the founder of Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a nonprofit promoting healthy eating, went so far as to call it "terrific and very hip." The press conference literally had people on their feet, with aerobics guru Denise Austin leading reporters in a few stretches. "Every minute counts!" she chirped. "Don't you feel better?"In fact, now that the hype has died down, some nutritionists are feeling worse. The new system is fun to play with, but, to put it mildly, it has a few bugs. If you want to translate your custom recommendations into meals, says...
  • A 'STRIKING' FRAGILE X FINDING?

    The genetic flaw called Fragile X has a suite of tragic symptoms--mental disabilities, autism and seizures among them. Like most developmental defects, it's permanent, or that's what doctors have assumed. Tom Jongens, though, thinks that there might be hope for a partial cure even after his Fragile X patients--fruit flies--are well into adulthood.Humans with Fragile X lack a particular gene, FMR1, that produces a protein crucial to the functioning of synapses, the spaces that connect brain cells to each other. Jongens's flies are also missing that gene, and they suffer some of the same symptoms as humans, such as short-lived memories. For instance, scientists can train normal male flies not to get too amorous by pairing them with females that aren't receptive. Translated to humans: if a guy strikes out at the local bar, he may stop trying entirely. Male Fragile X flies are more like the guys who won't give up: they forget their training and court any female that comes their way...
  • THE TSUNAMI THREAT

    It was late on the morning of April 1, 1946, and on the island of Hawaii, children from the school at Laupahoehoe Point were the first to see the Pacific Ocean disappear. They watched, awestruck, as 500 feet of sand and coral emerged glistening into the sunshine. A few of the braver ones ventured out onto the exposed reef. Suddenly the water came roaring back, sweeping away the children along with the buildings near the shore and the entire waterfront of nearby Hilo. For nine hours, a teacher, 21-year-old Marsue McGinnis, clung to a piece of driftwood before she was spotted by her fiance, who had mounted his own rescue in a borrowed motorboat. "I saw a number of children floating near me, clinging to wreckage," she said. "We just kept floating out to sea, and some of the children disappeared."Five hours earlier, an earthquake had erupted under the ocean floor off the coast of Alaska. Officials of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, a branch of the Commerce Department, knew what might be...
  • STIRRING UP SCIENCE

    If it's true that intelligent people never get bored, 14-year-old Shannon McClintock ought to be thrilled every minute she's awake. In October her science skills won the top prize at the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. At an age when many girls still harbor hopes of becoming ballerinas and pop stars, McClintock wants to "look for infinite mathematical patterns that haven't been found in nature yet." She's the kind of smart student that educators pin their hopes on. So why did she, of all people, start to find her science classes a little boring when she got to middle school? There was one problem, she says: "Things were too simplified."If only one could say the same for the larger issue of fixing science education in America. For years middle-grade science teachers have struggled to spark the imaginations of their students, and they've found the task to be anything but simple. In the elementary grades, most kids are curious about the natural world. But by the time they...
  • THE QUEST FOR MEMORY DRUGS

    To say that aplysia californicus is one of nature's least glamorous beasts would be too kind. A hermaphroditic marine snail with mottled purple skin, it keeps to itself, responding to disturbances by emitting a murky fluid that stains the water around it. Its "brain," if you can call it that, is stunningly simple, with only a few thousand oversize neurons. It is not, in short, a likely candidate for glory in the animal kingdom. But a few years from now, much of the baby-boom generation may be greatly indebted to this unprepossessing little creature. Aplysia may look homely, but to scientists hoping to develop memory-enhancing medicine, it is a thing of beauty.Thanks to the neurological research of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel and others, Aplysia's minimal nervous system is helping scientists to make sense of how memory works on the biochemical level. The molecules of memory in sea slugs, it turns out, aren't that different from some of those in humans. They are now one of the many...
  • PHYSICS: DOSE OF 'REALITY'

    If you're one of the thousands of people who bought Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" in 1988 and then let it gather dust as it sat on the coffee table impressing your visitors, better clear some space. There's a new theory-of-everything book on the way, and it's even more likely to wow your dates--assuming you can convince them you've read it. The first 400 pages of "The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe," by Hawking's equally renowned colleague Roger Penrose, are solid math. The next 600... let's just say those first 400 were an introduction.Nonetheless, the book is being hailed as a masterpiece, and parts of it (specifically, the ones that aren't equations) are eloquent and comprehensible. Even the rankest amateurs will recognize some of Penrose's references, such as the vertigo-inducing etchings of M. C. Escher. "The Road to Reality" is a British best seller, and though it won't arrive in the States until February, it's already generating...
  • HEALTH: NO BONES ABOUT IT

    Osteoporosis is already common among the elderly. But a new surgeon general's report says that, in the near future, fully half of people older than 50 will be at risk for the disease. Widespread as it may be, osteoporosis is largely preventable. Traditional safeguards are the best: 30 minutes of exercise per day, plus at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 200 International Units of vitamin D. Four cups of milk contain about that much of both. After 50, you should increase the amounts to 1,500mg of calcium and 400IU of vitamin D, and you'll also need other, extra precautions. A minor fracture can be an early warning, so if you break even the smallest bone, get a bone-density test. If you've been diagnosed, take heart. Pharmaceutical companies are working on several new osteoporosis drugs, and current ones can fortify bones and even, in some cases, repair damage. To get a free booklet on improving your bone health, check out surgeongeneral.gov.
  • VISION: GETTING A GOOD LOOK

    Ask anyone with bifocals: doctors can't give patients older than 45 perfect vision. In middle age, the lens loses elasticity. But the muscles operating it, allowing younger people to change focus automatically, work long past then. Ophthalmologists have been trying to exploit that fact with procedures ranging from Lasik, which doesn't allow for perfect near vision, to the low-tech approach of using only one eye, aided by a contact, for focusing on close objects. In 1998, the FDA approved the Array, a multifocal lens that can cause some to see halos around bright light sources. Others still need to wear glasses. The "holy grail" of ophthalmology, says Dr. Howard Fine, is elusive. But maybe not for long. Eyeonics' CrystaLens moves forward within the eye automatically. The Synchrony, by Visiogen, works like a telescope, using two lenses that change the focus depending on how far they are from each other. And the NuLens, says Fine, who sits on the company's board, bulges directly into...
  • Cut Stress--Cut Sugar

    Compared with other methods of managing diabetes--strict diets, insulin injections, vigilant blood-sugar monitoring--Richard Surwit's technique seems too easy to be true. It doesn't involve pills or shots. It doesn't technically require a doctor's supervision. And if you're a diabetic reading this, you can start treatment right now, just by taking a deep, relaxing breath. Feel better?If Surwit is right, you should. By lowering stress, he argues, patients with diabetes, particularly type 2, can keep their illness in check. Stress raises the body's levels of cortisol and epinephrine and, via those hormones, the amount of glucose in the blood. Because diabetics cannot make enough insulin to metabolize the raised sugar levels, the sugar stays high long after the stress has ended.Surwit, a psychologist, first stumbled on the principle 25 years ago. Mind-body medicine was in its infancy, and he was frankly more interested in its potential for preventing heart disease. But a colleague, a...
  • A New Style In The Operating Room

    Under the lights of his operating room at New York Presbyterian Hospital, heart surgeon Dr. Craig Smith looks like a futurist, using high-tech robotic techniques on elderly patients once deemed too fragile for major surgery. Outside the OR, he's pure old school, with a deadpan wit and a schedule of 16-hour days. A college running back, he says he copes with stress by "keeping my emotions canned up and focusing on the job." To perform a "relatively routine" quadruple bypass on former president Bill Clinton last week, Smith postponed his 34th-wedding-anniversary vacation. He's just what Americans picture when they think of a surgeon: brilliant, stoic, workaholic and male.In the near future, surgeons like Smith may be the exception, not the rule. Since 1999 surgery has attracted about 5 percent of medical graduates--down dramatically from the 12 percent it pulled in the '80s and '90s, when the best and brightest students saw it as both intellectually enriching and, well, enriching....
  • SUNFLOWER POWER?

    America may still depend on foreign oil for energy, but if blue-sky scientists have their way, in the future it will rely on ecofriendly domestic fuels--like plankton, sunflowers, gold or bananas, which may not be a major U.S. crop but at least are grown in this hemisphere. Last week three different research groups made the case for the latter three sources as the fuels of tomorrow. Sunflower oil yields hydrogen suitable for powering fuel cells in cars. In a sort of reverse alchemy, gold, reacting with water and carbon monoxide, can run a fuel cell, too. Rotting bananas give off methane gas. As for plankton, Oregon State University scientists announced in early August that the microscopic sea dwellers can be converted into electricity as they decompose.Don't dump your Exxon stock yet, though. None of the four new power sources produces much buzz for the buck. To power just one household appliance for a day, it would take roughly 120 pounds of bananas, and with blights and pests...
  • ARCHEOLOGY: QUESTIONS IN QUMRAN

    Yuval Peleg and Itzhak Magen are not revolutionaries. They work for the establishment--both respected archeologists have offices at the Israel Antiquities Authority. And, lest you have visions of Indy Jones, they've spent the last 10 years quietly excavating at Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found in 1947. But in the past month Peleg and Magen have set off what can only be called an academic revolution.The scrolls, which contain the oldest known version of the Old Testament, are the work of ascetic Jews called Essenes, who were poor by choice. Archeologists have always assumed they lived at Qumran, a site revered by Jews and Christians alike. The problem is that whoever lived at Qumran wasn't poor. Peleg and Magen have dug up jewelry, perfume bottles, combs and other trinkets that aren't consistent with the Essenes' way of life. That may mean the scrolls weren't written in Qumran at all--which makes the barren plateau suddenly look a lot less holy.Norman Golb, a University...
  • TRANSITION

    FRANCIS CRICK, 88 Crick's life, like the strands of DNA whose structure he helped discover, was entwined with its opposite--where Francis Crick was private, James Watson was gregarious. Always the second man of the double helix, Crick largely stayed at home during its 50th-anniversary celebrations last year while Watson, 12 years his junior and still sprightly, welcomed the cameras.But Crick, who died last week after a long fight with cancer, was no shadow. (He wasn't completely solitary, either. He passed on his own DNA to three children.) A prominent molecular biologist even before the discovery that won him the Nobel Prize, Crick was more established than Watson, with more to lose if his theory had been wrong. But he was confident: shortly after they formulated the model, he proclaimed to the patrons of a Cambridge pub that they had found "the secret of life." And they had. The entire biotech industry, the Human Genome Project--and many of the cancer treatments that let Crick...
  • DRIVING KIDS FROM DRINK

    Anyone who's taken high-school health class has seen it: the filmstrip with graphic footage of drunken-driving wrecks. For years anyone who went to college viewed it there, too. There was just one problem: it didn't keep kids from drinking. "There's absolutely no evidence those scare tactics worked," says William DeJong, director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. So administrators are trying a new strategy: educate, don't agitate. Some new college alcohol-abuse programs are straight-up shots of science, while others look at campus culture, but they all resist preachiness.In the '90s, public concern and several high-profile deaths vaulted alcohol abuse to the top of college agendas. In 2003 the average school spent $21,000 on curbing alcohol abuse--double the total from 2000. What does the money buy? Much of it goes to science-heavy computer programs like Alcohol 101, an educational videogame in which players send a virtual student to a frat party...
  • HEALTH BENEFITS

    Stress, colds, sleep deprivation, trouble with family and friends, trouble with "more than friends," depression, Internet addiction, sinus infections, deaths in the family, alcohol--according to the National College Health Assessment, if you're an undergraduate or about to be one, these are the top 10 things you think will keep you from getting straight A's next year. And that's not even including nutrition, exercise, personal safety or sexual health.College is scary enough when you don't have to worry about staying healthy. But for many undergraduates, it's a completely new experience, medically speaking. College students don't have to eat their broccoli anymore, unless they like it on their pizza. If they need someone to talk to, Mom and Dad may be in the next state over, not the next room. And in most cases, the pediatricians who've charted their health through childhood aren't around either. Without someone to act in loco parentis, the prospect of college itself could make an...
  • IN THE NEWS: HOW LOW CAN IT GO?

    Americans have a cholesterol problem, and we know it. But some who hoped they were in the clear may have gotten a shock last week when the National Cholesterol Education Program drastically lowered its LDL, or "bad cholesterol" guidelines. Patients at very high risk for a heart attack (those with underlying heart disease plus other risk factors like diabetes, smoking and hypertension) are now advised to shoot for 70 mg/dL or lower, down from 100, while those at high risk who were aiming for 130 should now get below 100. Moderately high-risk patients should try for 100, too, even if it means taking statins they weren't on before. Should you be one of the 36 million Americans on the drugs? Yes, if you're in the very high or high-risk groups (ask your doctor which one you're in). If you're only at moderately high risk, they're worth considering, especially if your LDL is above 130. But docs at the American Heart Association warn that statins offer far fewer benefits than "lifestyle...
  • HEALTH: SLEEP MORE, WEIGH LESS?

    Nearly a third of American children are overweight. How do you keep yours from joining the group? A study published last week in the Journal of Pediatrics points to some surprising warning signs. Children prone to tantrums may be at higher risk for obesity--perhaps because their parents use food to soothe them. Parents who showed either too little or too much concern for their children's diets (thus not letting the kids make their own healthy choices) might also contribute to a problem. And researchers found that kids who ended up overweight tended to sleep a half hour less than fit kids each night. (Those who sleep less may not be exercising enough during the day.) The upshot? Send Junior outside to play--and if he scrapes his knee, don't comfort him with a cookie.
  • WEST NILE: A VACCINE ON THE WAY... BUT NOT THIS S

    The year's first case of human West Nile virus cropped up last week in New Mexico, and although it was a mild one, officials are expecting the season to be anything but. Few areas of the country are still untouched by the disease, which has taken up residence in hundreds of species of wild birds, rodents and reptiles in the five years since it arrived in the States. It's starting early; the first human case last year didn't appear until July. And the specter is looming larger this year as doctors discover the disease's long-term effects. Some patients who recovered months ago still suffer shortness of breath, fevers, pain, paralysis and irreversible nerve damage. Although almost 80 percent of people infected with the virus show no symptoms, there's still no cure for the 20 percent who do, other than rest, liquids and time.There is, however, a vaccine, albeit one that so far has worked in only 15 people. Last week, Acambis announced that all of the subjects in its as-yet-small...
  • PSST. NEED A JOLT?

    Sudden cardiac arrest kills 930 people every day, mostly in their own homes. Using a defibrillator and CPR in the first five minutes can quadruple one's chances of survival. Increasingly common in public places like airports, the heart-shocking devices are now available for home use, too. "People who have absolutely no medical training can use them," says cardiac electrophysiologist Gust Bardy, who helped design Philips' model, which the FDA approved for homes last year. But at $1,995 or more, it doesn't come cheap. Is it worth it? The American Heart Association officially says there's not enough data to recommend the devices, but, says the AHA's Dr. Vinay Nadkarni, "it's really a concept whose time has come." In the next few years the organization will probably endorse the machines for widespread use in the home, he says. For now, it's a good idea to contact your local Red Cross (redcross.org) for training. And if you know you're at risk for heart disease--especially if your home...
  • Man's Best Friend Meets Dna Testing

    The Pharaoh hound is a noble breed. Depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs, it's thought to have been man's best friend for 2,000 years, even when dogs were more like wolves than the docile creatures we know today. There's just one problem. According to a new genetic study of 85 dog breeds, the pharaoh hound was bred not in the first century but the 19th, possibly by breeders trying to emulate dogs from ancient times. In other words, it's a fake.The American Kennel Club participated in the study, helping scientists get DNA samples from more than 400 dogs. But that doesn't mean all dog lovers are welcoming the new evidence. For breeders, the pharaoh-hound findings are a particularly nasty surprise, like looking under a supposed 18th-century armoire and discovering the mark of Pottery Barn. "I wasn't there 2,000 years ago, so I'm not going to dispute the study," says Jodi Lewis of Leavenworth, Kans., who owns nine pharaoh hounds. "But it's like talking about politics or religion--you...
  • Have It Your Way: Redesigning Birth

    Water birth, homebirth, HypnoBirthing--when Marion McCartney started as a nurse-midwife 30 years ago, none of those were popular, and birth was just birth. Women didn't get to choose their method of labor. If they were lucky, their doctors let them choose who stayed beside them as they pushed. "It was a medical event, not a personal experience," McCartney says. "Women were chaining their husbands to the delivery table so they'd be allowed to stay in the room. They didn't have any control."Today they've got almost more control than the doctors. From working mothers who schedule Caesarean sections around their office hours to those who insist on laboring at home on a birthing seat, expectant mothers are increasingly giving birth on their own terms. "Women are taking a bigger role in what they want from childbirth," says Dr. Mari-Paule Thiet, chief of obstetrics at the University of California, San Francisco's Birth Center. "And physicians are listening more." But how to respond?...
  • No Fries, Please

    The first thing Dr. Stuart Trager wants you to know about the Atkins Youth Initiative is that it is not, repeat, not an attempt to starve America's children of carbohydrates, much less give them an excuse to eat nothing but bunless bacon cheeseburgers. He's got proof, too: one of the AYI's new recommended lunches for kids. There are fresh radishes and strawberries and grilled chicken, all low-carb mainstays of the Atkins weight-loss regimen, but the chicken is sandwiched between two pieces of plain old healthy brown bread. And on top of the strawberries--is that whipped cream? "We're promoting the need to move away from highly refined sugar and carbohydrates. That's not controversial. Everyone agrees that emerging science supports that message," says Trager, chairman of the Atkins Physicians Council. "Putting kids on the Atkins diet is clearly in no way our agenda."So what exactly is the agenda? For the past year, Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., has been working quietly on a plan to...
  • IN THE NEWS: HEALTHIER MORNINGS

    Morning sickness isn't a serious health problem, but try telling that to the 80 percent of expectant mothers whose days are derailed by nausea and vomiting early in their pregnancies. Drugs are available to combat morning sickness, but many women worry about taking them and instead turn to natural remedies like ginger. There's good news for them this week. A small trial in the April issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology shows that ginger--long used in folk medicine to cure nausea--is as effective as vitamin B6, the first-line treatment endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians. It's safe, too, a conclusion bolstered by earlier studies. No studies have examined ginger tea or food products. Until they do, the best bet is one gram per day, via tablet.