Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • Out Of The Blue

    There are corners of the ocean that Navy Capt. Alfred McLaren has never seen, but to hear him recount his life story, it's hard to believe they'll stay hidden from him for long. At the age of 4, he decided his life's ambition was to see a "deep-sea monster" like the ones he had read about in National Geographic. Twenty-two years later he became one of the first hundred people chosen to pilot a deep-sea monster of a different variety--a U.S. nuclear submarine. Since then, he has played a game of baseball at the North Pole ("If you threw it from right field, you literally threw it back to yesterday"), gazed upon the undersides of icebergs and battled a polar bear who mistook his sub's periscope for an emerging seal. He has descended five times to the ruins of shipwrecks and the churning hot waters of hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic. He has seen more of the seas in 71 years than the entire human race had seen before he was born. So now that he's retired from the Navy, isn't it time...
  • Health: Dial-Up Doctor

    The next time your family physician tells you to take two aspirin and call him in the morning, he might not be kidding. A new study from Kaiser Permanente shows that urinary-tract infections, which account for more than 8 million doctor's visits each year, can be managed just as easily over the telephone. That's great news for sufferers. "The diagnosis is based almost exclusively on what patients tell us in the office, not on tests," says Dr. David Vinson, the study's lead author, "so it's not that different for them to tell someone over the phone." Of the 4,177 women in the study, almost 90 percent chose to give their symptoms to a specially trained nurse, who then faxed their antibiotic orders to a pharmacy after getting the OK from their primary care provider. The women fared as well as those who chose the waiting-room route. (Over-the-counter treatments for UTI are also available, but they don't get rid of the infection--they only reduce the pain.) The idea is catching on; many...
  • Health: Take Your Vitamin B

    If you are a woman of childbearing age--even if you're not planning on having a baby soon--tear out this headline and stick it on the fridge. For years, doctors have been telling young women to take 400 micrograms daily of folic acid (vitamin B9), which comes in many multivitamins and can prevent spina bifida and neural-tube defects in babies. But women haven't listened; less than a third of them follow orders. Why? A new March of Dimes study says most simply forget about it, don't care or think it's only for pregnant women. Ladies, listen to us: few links are as strong as that between birth defects and folic acid, which works best if it's taken before pregnancy. And half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned. So if there's any chance you'll ever have a baby, get to the health-food store.
  • Far From Home

    Every year, hundreds of thousands of foreign students set off for the States in pursuit of an American diploma. Most come to study the sciences. And their numbers keep growing; the Institute of International Education reports that a record 582,996 foreign students enrolled in U.S. universities last school year. Many of those students attended a select group of universities. The common factor? Each school makes sure international students feel welcome--and each has good word of mouth among folks back home. "If you asked foreign students to name three American schools, they'd name Harvard, Stanford and one of these," says IIE president Allan Goodman. "Students know them because their cousins, uncles and friends go there." They are (in order):1. UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES. USC is home to more than 5,000 international students. (Its promotional brochure spotlights an Australian student of Vietnamese origin.) Newcomers might be tempted to befriend only their...
  • Health: Mercury Menace?

    For years the FDA has warned pregnant women about mercury, the defect-causing pollutant that builds up in fish--and the women have responded. Last Thursday, a survey reported that expectant mothers have eaten 1.4 fewer servings of fish per month since the FDA launched its anti-mercury campaign. But on the same day, a Stanford study revealed that the mercury found in fish is not methyl-mercury chloride--the kind known to damage fetal nervous systems--but another form that might be less toxic to humans. Then again, it "might be more toxic," says biophysicist Graham George. Why the confusion? Scientists just don't know how mercury compounds break down in the human body. That's George's next step, though, so stay tuned. You should probably continue to avoid swordfish and mackerel until the experts get their fish story straight.
  • Health: Chemical Wowie

    In print, David Sinclair comes off as a mild-mannered Harvard pathologist given to discussions of "small molecules" and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. On the phone, though, he's a bit more... effusive. "We're making history," he says. "What surprises me--well, a lot of things do--oh, I've gotten carried away. What was my point?" What's got him so excited is none other than a small molecule, and if you happen to want a long and healthy life, it'll have you in a tizzy, too. Sinclair and colleagues reported last week in Nature that a chemical called resveratrol can lengthen the life of a Saccharomyces yeast cell by 80 percent--and it might do similar wonders for human cells. Resveratrol activates enzymes that prevent cancer, stave off cell death and boost cellular-repair systems.A naturally occurring molecule, it builds up in under-nourished animals and plants attacked by fungi. One of the latter is the grapevine--yup, resveratrol is found in red wine. Of course, if we had a nickel for...
  • Animal Emotions

    Pet Owners Have Long Believed Their Companions Love Them Back. Scientists Once Scoffed, But Now They're Coming Around.
  • HRT: MORE BAD NEWS

    It's been more than a year since a study linked hormone-replacement therapy to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease--and sent millions of women into a panic. Since then, the treatment has been implicated in breast cancer and stroke, too. But it still appeals to women desperate to escape menopausal symptoms. For them, we have one piece of advice: pick up copies of last week's Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine. Both journals add to the ever-mounting evidence that HRT has more risks than rewards. The NEJM study, based on the same data as last year's report, suggests that the risk of a heart attack rises 81 percent in the first year of use--and that's for all hormone users, not just women predisposed to cardiovascular disease. And The Lancet's study shows that progestin-estrogen therapy (like Prempro) tracks with an increased risk of breast cancer compared with the risk for women taking estrogen only. Estrogen therapy (like Premarin), by the way, is linked to uterine cancer....
  • Technology: Scoping Out The Stars

    Astronomers and astrologers don't have much in common, but there's a good chance August will send both groups into a frenzy: on the 27th, Mars will loom large on the horizon, coming closer to Earth than it has in 73,000 years. Alas, we can't say what that means for your love life, but we do have one prediction: a lot of folks will buy flashy new telescopes for the event, only to be disappointed. Telescopes are hardly simple tube-and-mirror devices anymore. That's great news for serious hobbyists, but first-timers baffled by tech talk may be best off with basic models. So Tip Sheet, er, looked into it. Here's our guide to buying a telescope.If the closest thing you already have to a scope is a pair of opera glasses, go for a simple classic: a Dobsonian, one you have to point yourself. Make sure it has at least a six-inch mirror. "First-timers make the mistake of buying small computerized telescopes with a lot of doodads and knobs," says Tom Burns, director of the Perkins Observatory...
  • Animal Emotions

    Everyone who's ever owned a pet has at least one story (usually many, actually) of an animal that seems just as emotional as any human. Take Ruth Osment, who says her two cats, Penny and Jo, feel sorry for her when she cries--running to her and drying her tears with their fur. Or Donna Westlund, whose roommate's parrot Koko shows all the classic signs of a teenage crush, calling out "Hey, come here," whenever she tries to leave the room. Then there's John Van Zante. Recently, he watched Max, a Labrador retriever mix, sit lovingly by a woman in a wheelchair in a convalescent home while she patted his head for several minutes. It wasn't until the elderly woman wheeled off down the hall that Van Zante realized she had been parked on Max's tail the entire time. Max hadn't complained at all. "He was in pain, clearly, but he seemed to know that she had special needs, so he just sat through it," says Van Zante, communications director for the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe...
  • A New Face From Africa

    To Michelangelo, eve was a lovely brunette; to Rodin, a voluptuous temptress. To scientists, the matriarch's face has been more elusive. In 1987 geneticists suspected that a 160,000-year-old "African Eve" of sorts was the last common ancestor of modern humans, "but without data from the fossil record, no one knew what she looked like," says University of California, Berkeley, paleontologist Tim White.Now we do. Last week in the journal Nature, White's team announced that three skulls--from a man, a child and an adult of uncertain gender, from Afar in Ethiopia--dated to the same era as African Eve's, making them the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils. They look entirely modern, though subtle differences earned them the subspecies name idaltu ("elder").The skulls demolish the notion that humans evolved on several continents, interbreeding with Neanderthals, and support the "only in Africa" theory. But they raise new questions. The skulls were separated from the bodies; the child's had...
  • The Prairie Dog Problem

    Schyan Kautzerhas had a rough couple of weeks. First, the 3-year-old's new pet prairie dog bit her finger. Next, a temperature of 103 landed her in the hospital. Then her parents tried to medicate her pet--which wasn't doing well, either--and ended up sick themselves, all suffering from monkeypox, the latest exotic ailment to show up in the United States. By Friday of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was investigating 72 possible cases (13 confirmed) in the Midwest and New Jersey, largely among prairie-dog owners. The Kautzers are better now, but the rest of the country is still feeling a little queasy. Here's what you should know:What exactly is monkeypox, and how did it get here? A far less deadly relative of smallpox, monkeypox is a rare virus first isolated in African monkeys. It's transmitted only by bodily fluids--like the saliva from a bite. Symptoms include high temperature, aches, a sore throat and red, pus-filled bumps. Mortality ranges from 1 to...
  • West Nile: On The Move

    Last August, as the West Nile virus went on a 44-state, 284-person killing spree, Vicki Kramer found herself troubled by a single case. In California, where Kramer is the state's point person on mosquito-borne disease, the virus hadn't shown up in surveillance of birds or insects. But out of nowhere, a sick 31-year-old woman who hadn't left the Los Angeles area in months had fallen ill. The case was a mystery in many ways, but Kramer figured there were ways to solve it--the deadly disease might have been circulating all along, spread by some other means. Only one question really bothered her: why hadn't she seen it coming?She will this year--and it's surely coming, and fast. Despite last year's outbreak, few people have developed immunity to the disease, says Dawn Wesson, an associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University. Neither have the 138 species of birds and numerous other types of wildlife West Nile has now infected. And while geography may have kept a few...
  • Anthropology: In The Face Of History

    To Michelangelo, Eve was a lovely brunette; to Rodin, she was a voluptuous temptress. But to scientists, the human matriarch's face has always been elusive. In 1987 geneticists concluded that an "African Eve" of sorts, who lived 160,000 years ago, was the last common ancestor of all humans. But the sands had yielded nothing from that period. "Without data from the fossil record," says Berkeley paleontologist Tim White, "no one knew what she looked like."Now we do. Last week White's team announced that three human skulls had been dated to precisely the same era as African Eve's, give or take a few millennia. They are by far the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils. The skulls are at first glance indistinguishable from those on our own necks. Their brains are large, in one case bigger than any of ours. By virtue of their age, they effectively demolish "multiregionalism," a theory by which humans evolved in relatively isolated patches around the globe. Instead, the finding confirms that...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    How does sunscreen work? -JAMIE REED, OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLA.That depends on which kind you're using. Basic sunscreen contains chemicals that absorb the energy in ultraviolet rays, then emit it back as lower-frequency heat waves. The higher its SPF, the more UV rays it can absorb and re-emit--but even an SPF of 30 will let a few rays by. (SPFs higher than 30 aren't substantially more effective, so save your money.) For total protection, there's zinc oxide or titanium oxide, the opaque white goo lifeguards smear on their noses. It physically blocks the sunlight, rather than absorbing it. But unless you're going for that full-body-paint look, you're better off with the SPF 30 and a wide-brim hat.
  • Medicine For The Masses

    There are 30,000 scientific journals in the world, and most of them are unreadable. Do we really need another? Yes, yes, yes, at least in the case of the Annals of Family Medicine. The new journal is thin, photo-free and lures readers with scintillating headlines like applying a risk-adjustment framework to primary care. But behind the stuffy format is a radical idea: a medical journal that appeals to doctors and patients. With easy-to-understand articles, the Annals focuses on issues that may be overlooked in more specialized, esoteric journals, but are crucial in real life. It features sound, peer-reviewed science on common health problems like cancer, diabetes and pregnancy complications. And it does it all, free, on a Web site, ann fammed.org. (Or you can buy hard copies.) There's even a message board where readers--physicians or the rest of us--can respond to articles. "We don't want this to be just doctors talking to doctors," says editor Kurt Stange. He has an M.D. and a Ph.D...
  • Health: Baby Food (For Mom)

    It's a safe bet that Dr. David Barker has never craved pickles and ice cream. Still, if there's one man in the world who understands the peculiar dietary needs of pregnant women, it's him. Barker rose to fame in the '90s as the main backer of "fetal programming," the idea that conditions in the womb, influenced by the mother's diet, can determine a baby's likelihood of chronic adult disease. Today the Barker Hypothesis is the subject of hundreds of studies--and one very comprehensive guidebook, "The Best Start in Life," just out in England and available at amazon.co.uk. On the surface, much of the advice in Barker's book seems obvious (there can't be a woman in the world who thinks eating nothing but rice cakes is good for a fetus--well, at least not outside of Hollywood). But some issues are more complex than they first seem. Dieting during pregnancy, or even a few months before conception, creates an in utero environment short on the nutrients a baby needs for organ growth. The...
  • Baby Food (For Mom)

    It's a safe bet that Dr. David Barker has never craved pickles and ice cream. Still, if there's one man in the world who understands the peculiar dietary needs of pregnant women, it's him. Barker rose to fame in the '90s as the main backer of "fetal programming," the idea that conditions in the womb, influenced by the mother's diet, can determine a baby's likelihood of chronic adult disease. Today the Barker Hypothesis is the subject of hundreds of studies--and one very comprehensive guidebook, "The Best Start in Life," just out in England and available at amazon.co.uk. On the surface, much of the advice in Barker's book seems obvious (there can't be a woman in the world who thinks eating nothing but rice cakes is good for a fetus--well, at least not outside of Hollywood). But some issues are more complex than they first seem. Dieting during pregnancy, or even a few months before conception, creates an in utero environment short on the nutrients a baby needs for organ growth. The...
  • Fifty Years Of Conquering Everest

    Fifty years ago this week, Sir Edmund Hillary went to Nepal on a mission to what was left of the unexplored world. Last Friday he returned. Flown to Katmandu for the anniversary festivities after spending a week with the family of Tenzing Norgay, his partner in conquest, an exhausted Hillary was wrapped in a blanket and spirited away from the 200-some Sherpas, admirers and reporters awaiting him at the airport. His 83-year-old body was too worn out for travel by plane, much less by foot. But his quest went on, in the form of four Sherpas and a one-armed climber named Gary Guller, who had reached Everest's summit an hour earlier. Thirty-five others had gotten there the day before, and by June, when the mountain closes for business, an estimated 400 people will have ascended to its peak--this year alone. Hillary will not be among them but his spirit undoubtedly will.
  • Medical Testing At Home

    Getting a medical self-diagnosis at home isn't exactly new--it began with the scale in ancient Egypt. But these days, you can check a lot more than your weight. Devices on the market and in the pipeline allow patients to monitor their cholesterol and glucose levels, find out if they have allergies and even test for serious diseases like hepatitis C and HIV. The explosion in home diagnostics has many doctors worried that patients will substitute self-testing for office-based medical care. That's not what the tests are for--they're intended to supplement, not replace, a doctor visit--and so far, the FDA has been loath to approve many self-test kits for that reason. But the tests that have made it to market keep getting better.HIVEven with HIV drugs keeping the symptoms of AIDS at bay, an HIV-positive diagnosis is devastating--and more so when it's given without proper medical and psychological counseling. So when scientists first floated the idea of a home test for HIV, doctors...
  • Periscope

    Trade: Happy TogetherAmericans have taken sledgehammers to Peugeots. Germans have boycotted McDonald's. The Iraq war may be over, but the transatlantic rancor it inspired has yet to fade. Washington has hinted at commercial punishment against France for opposing the war, while some French officials talk almost gleefully of how George W. Bush's behavior is turning the world away from the American model--in business as in all things. To counter the vitriol, Washington has launched a charm offensive to repair commercial ties to Europe. In Paris last week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick reassured a group of worried French business leaders that there will be no trade sanctions and reminded everyone that transatlantic --trade has shot up to $1.5 trillion per year: "At the economic level, the United States and Europe are joined at the hip."Yes, the Bush administration appears to be rediscovering its financial friends in Europe. Last Monday, U.S. Under Secretary for Commerce...
  • Help From Far Away

    There isn't a soul in America who's more all-American than Alex. A bright, chatty college graduate, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball and basketball. He loves "Friends," and if there's a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster in theaters, he's almost certainly seen it already. So it may seem odd that his employers recently put him through a 28-hour crash course on U.S. culture that covered some rather basic terrain--like the fact that New England is not a part of Britain. What red-blooded American wouldn't know that?Most would--but then, Alex isn't a red-blooded American. He's the alter ego of a 24-year-old Indian named Abhinav Alexander who follows sports and Hollywood only because acting like a typical U.S. resident is a big part of his job. "Alex" mans a credit-card customer-support line for Spectramind, an Indian-run outsourcing firm in New Delhi that pays young, sharp Indian grads to adopt American personas and drudge through back-office work for corporations on the other...
  • Science: Fountain Of Youth

    Four years ago, Audie Leventhal's daughters sat him down and explained to him, slowly, that they were smarter than he was. Typical teenage behavior, but Leventhal took them seriously. "It wasn't that I thought they were smarter," he says, laughing. "But I wondered, was I getting stupider?" Well, maybe. Leventhal, a neurobiologist, has just published research that leaves no doubt as to his intellect--but it does indicate that we're all, indeed, getting stupider with age. And for the first time it hints at why.
  • The Fat Factor

    Last year the American Cancer Society asked people to list strategies for preventing cancer. Only 1 percent said "lose weight." Let's hope the other 99 percent heard last week's news. A huge ACS study has definitively linked obesity to a higher risk of getting and dying from a long list of cancers, including some--like prostate, ovarian and pancreatic cancers--that hadn't previously been connected. (It seems only melanomas, pediatric cancers and tumors of the brain, lung and bladder aren't weight-related.)Exactly how obesity promotes tumor growth is unknown, but people with more fatty tissue do have higher levels of insulin and estrogen, which encourage cell division. Weight loss causes a drop in hormone levels, so it's extremely likely that it reduces cancer risk. To prove it, though, scientists would need to conduct another study using people who had successfully lost a lot of weight. The sad reason they haven't? "There aren't enough subjects," says lead author Jeanne Calle. For...
  • Economies On Empty

    By now, everyone knows the early signs of SARS are high fever and a dry cough. But there's a second set of symptoms: canceled business trips, the collapse of tourism and falling stock prices. SARS (and fear of the mysterious disease) has already infected economies in Asia and Canada. Now U.S. markets are starting to look a little sickly, too. Last week analysts here blamed SARS for both a domestic stock slump and the airline industry's most recent woes. That's got economists pondering the kinds of questions doctors usually worry about: how far will this contagion spread, and what will be its final toll?In Asia, where tourism can account for as much as 9 percent of a country's gross domestic product, companies and families alike are canceling travel plans and locals are staying home. Hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore now regularly go more than half empty, if they're open at all; analysts estimate that more than 40 percent of China's annual $67 billion in tourism...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    Are mildew and mold different things?--RUTH ETZEL, ANCHORAGE, ALASKAThat depends on what you mean by "mildew." As a technical term, "mildew" refers to a type of crop disease. But for most people, "it's just slang for shower grunge," says environmental microbiologist Linda Stetzenbach. The nasty gray stuff in tile grout is usually a mixture of soap, skin cells, hair, yeast and--yep--some mold, a.k.a. fungi imperfecti. Unlike the toxic house-infesting mold blamed for ailments, shower grunge probably isn't dangerous to healthy people, since there's so little actual mold in it. Then again, Lysol isn't dangerous either, folks.
  • Calls That Follow You Anywhere

    It's one of the most maddening features of all the technology in our lives. There are so many gadgets to connect us--cell phones, e-mail, land-line phones--yet most of the gadgets aren't connected to each other.Verizon's answer is the new Digital Companion service, which marries Caller ID, Call Forwarding and the Web. The result: no matter how you try to reach some-one, you'll likely get through. The system, launching in phases throughout the year, revolves around private Verizon Web sites that track phone calls in real time and allow users to decide, with one click, which calls should be routed to which phone as they come in. It also includes a phone service that reads out the contents of e-mail. Say you're a working mother, and your son's school is trying to call you at home (where, naturally, you aren't). With Digital Companion, an instant message pops up on your office computer with the school's Caller ID, and with one click you can forward the call to your office. If you miss...
  • Discoveries: They're In The Genes

    James Watson is having one heck of a month. On April 2 he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Nature article in which he and Francis Crick revealed the structure of DNA to the world. Then, 16 labs joined this week to release the full results of his other opus, the Human Genome Project. Wait a minute, you say, didn't they already do that? Sort of. The sequence announced Monday is far more complete, with only 300 gaps, compared with 30,000 in the June 2000 version. Now we have to figure out what it all means. With most of the holes filled in, scientists are expected to lay out a plan for forthcoming research at a two-day symposium following the announcement, starring none other than Watson, the project's chief proponent. The proposed studies, according to a paper in this week's Nature, will focus on how genes interact with proteins, influence behavior and vary between populations. The hope is that the research will usher in new medical treatments and a better understanding of the...
  • Calls That Follow You Anywhere

    It’s one of the most maddening features of all the technology in our lives. There are so many gadgets to connect us—cell phones, e-mail, land-line phones—yet most of the gadgets aren’t connected to each other.VERIZON’S ANSWER IS THE NEW Digital Companion service, which marries Caller ID, Call Forwarding and the Web. The result: no matter how you try to reach some-one, you’ll likely get through. The system, launching in phases throughout the year, revolves around private Verizon Web sites that track phone calls in real time and allow users to decide, with one click, which calls should be routed to which phone as they come in. It also includes a phone service that reads out the contents of e-mail. Say you’re a working mother, and your son’s school is trying to call you at home (where, naturally, you aren’t). With Digital Companion, an instant message pops up on your office computer with the school’s Caller ID, and with one click you can forward the call to your office. If you miss the...
  • Science: Roadkill In The Classroom? Oh, Deer.

    There are many ways to describe the new science curriculum at Hayden Valley Elementary School: "educational," for instance, or "eco-conscious." Or "ewww." Hayden, a tiny outpost in the Colorado woods, is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, much of which ends up dead on the side of the local stretch of U.S. Highway 40. This year, second and fourth graders have started keeping tabs on the ex-animals, mapping their locations with GIS technology. The program, called Critter Control, plays on kids' fascination with the grody, but it's real science--after five years, they'll have enough data to recommend new places for animal-crossing signs and culverts to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.Teachers Barb Paulekas and Laura LeBrun expected parents to be put off by the idea. But Hayden is a hunting town, and dead animals "are a way of life" there, Paulekas notes. Most folks embraced Critter Control. Heck, some parents even participated: "One night, my dad actually made the roadkill," says...