Health & Science

Driven to distraction by cellphones; A drug for perfect pitch; How supervolcanoes erupt; The magnetism of pooping

Driven to distraction by cellphones

Everyone knows by now that using a cellphone while driving is extremely dangerous. But a new study, conducted by observing 151 drivers behind the wheel, has quantified just how risky various cellphone activities are. The most dangerous activity: dialing a number. Experienced drivers who try to dial a number are two-and-a-half times more likely to get in a crash or near-crash. The crash risk for that same activity goes up more than eight times for novice drivers. Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute made these assessments by monitoring for a year the cars of 42 new license holders and 109 seasoned drivers with cameras, accelerometers, GPS devices, and other sensors. One key finding is that experienced drivers get better at handling multiple tasks, though they still face much higher risks; new drivers really can’t handle any distraction. “When you’re inexperienced, you’re not very good at multitasking, and you’re not very good at determining when, under what driving conditions, to engage in these tasks,” Bruce Simons-Morton of the National Institutes of Health tells For new drivers, just reaching for a phone causes a sevenfold increase in the risk of crashing or a close call. Texting was found to increase the chance of crashes or near-crashes almost fourfold.

A drug for perfect pitch

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Perfect pitch, the ability to identify or sing musical notes without a reference point, is a rare, largely genetic gift, although it can be nurtured through training in early childhood. Scientists have now identified a drug, valproate, that may help adults master that rare skill by re-creating a critical period in brain development, enabling them to absorb new information as easily as they did before age 7. “It’s a mood-stabilizing drug, but we found that it also restores the plasticity of the brain to a juvenile state,” Harvard molecular biologist Takao Hensch tells Such neuro-plasticity is what allows young children to easily pick up skills, from speaking new languages to playing musical instruments. In the study, 23 adult males with no previous musical training took either valproate or a placebo and were taught to identify pitch tones. When the men were tested after two weeks, those who had taken the drug showed a surprising gain in perfect pitch, while the placebo group did not. Scientists say further study may establish whether valproate enhances adults’ ability to learn languages and other skills as easily as young children.

How supervolcanoes erupt

Here’s another potential cataclysm to worry about: A new study has found that supervolcanoes like the one beneath Yellowstone National Park can blow without warning or an external trigger like an earthquake, wiping out millions of people. Supervolcanoes are giant pools of lava deep in the earth that can sit dormant for tens of thousands of years. When they do erupt, the blast is devastating, throwing out so much lava, rock, and ash that they can bury surrounding land for hundreds of miles, darken the skies, and cause as much havoc as a giant meteor strike. To understand what causes these mysterious giants to erupt, researchers filled a diamond-and--platinum capsule with synthetic magma and simulated supervolcanoes’ internal heat and pressure conditions. When enough magma filled the capsule, the transition from solid to liquid magma was found to create enough pressure to punch through more than six miles of the earth’s crust. “The effect is comparable to holding a football under water,” Wim Malfait of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich tells “When you release it, the air-filled ball is forced upwards by the denser water around it.” There are about 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth; it’s estimated that Yellowstone’s could erupt with 2,000 times the force that Mount St. Helens did in 1980 and cover several states with lava and ash.

The magnetism of pooping

Why do dogs tend to circle around before getting down to business? Because they like to be aligned with the earth’s magnetic field before they poop. Researchers finally figured out this great mystery after watching 70 dogs engage in 1,893 defecations and 5,582 urinations over a two-year period, and recording the time, place, and body orientation for each one. They found that dogs’ preference for the north-south axis was most pronounced during the roughly 20 percent of the day when the magnetic field was calm and steady. When the field was in flux—due to solar flares, solar wind, and sunspot activity—the canines had real trouble finding a suitable place to go. “We found that dogs are magnetosensitive, and they are predictably disturbed by even small changes of the magnetic field,” zoologist Sabine Begall of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany tells Previous studies have shown that cattle and deer graze in a north-south direction, and that birds and fish use the magnetic field to guide their seasonal migrations.

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