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Health & Science

Closing in on the ‘God particle’

Closing in on the ‘God particle’The strongest evidence yet that the elusive Higgs boson exists has emerged from data gathered at the Tevatron particle accelerator in Illinois. Scientists have been hunting for the Higgs, a subatomic particle thought to impart mass to everything in the universe, for more than 40 years. The stakes are high: The Standard Model, the set of equations that encapsulates our understanding of particle physics, stands or falls on the existence of the Higgs, or “God particle.” Analyzing data from the recently mothballed Tevatron, scientists saw that smashing protons into antiprotons at nearly the speed of light had produced a short-lived particle with a mass between 115 and 135 billion electron volts that quickly decayed into more-common subatomic particles. That finding jibes with similar numbers returned last year by Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, which uses a different method to smash particles together. Now physicists are joking that the Higgs boson hasn’t been discovered yet, but its mass is about 125 billion electron volts. Further tests this summer at the LHC should confirm or disprove the existence of the Higgs—thereby verifying or upending our understanding of how the universe works. “The excitement is mounting,’’ LHC researcher Oliver Buchmüller tells Reuters.com. “We are getting closer and closer.”

A teen smoking epidemicSmoking remains a stubbornly entrenched habit among American teenagers. A new report on youth smoking from the U.S. Surgeon General’s office—the first since 1994—shows that one in five American teens smokes; 80 percent of them will still be addicted as adults. Teen smoking was in dramatic decline a decade ago, but in recent years the decrease has slowed. Anti-smoking activists blame the $10 billion that tobacco companies spend every year on marketing and advertising. About 600,000 middle-school students and 3 million high school students light up regularly. Teen smoking is “a pediatric epidemic,’’ Surgeon General Regina Benjamin tells USA Today. “The numbers are really shocking.’’ Smoking-related diseases are the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., killing some 1,200 people per day. Yet for every death, two more people under the age of 26 take up the habit. In addition to drastically increasing young people’s odds of developing cancer and heart disease, smoking can permanently damage their still-developing lungs. “The addictive power of nicotine makes tobacco use much more than a passing phase for most teens,’’ Benjamin says. “It’s a problem we have to solve.”

A health boost from spicesSpicing up your meals may be an easy way to increase metabolism and improve heart health. Researchers at Penn State University prepared two identical high-fat meals for a group of volunteers, then added two tablespoons of a mix of spices—including rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, garlic powder, and paprika—to one of them, transforming a plain chicken dish into chicken curry. Usually, eating rich foods increases blood levels of insulin and triglyceride fats, which heighten the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. But when researchers tested the blood of the volunteers after both meals, they found that the spicy version reduced triglyceride levels by 31 percent and insulin levels by 21 percent compared with the blander fare. “I didn’t expect such a large decrease,’’ study author Sheila West tells NPR.org. Previous research indicates that spices may contain anti-oxidants—much like chocolate and red wine do—that can help ward off chronic disease. Researchers now hope to figure out what amounts of which spices are the most beneficial, and whether the use of spices reduces the risk of disease over the long term.

Curing racism with a drugCould popping a pill cure racism? Propranolol—a beta-blocker often taken to treat high blood pressure and anxiety—appears to have that surprising effect, at least on a subconscious level. To measure unwitting racial bias, Oxford University researchers asked white volunteers to group pictures of black and white individuals with positive and negative words, like “sunshine” and “sad.” Volunteers who had taken propranolol, as opposed to a placebo, were far quicker to associate black faces with positive words, suggesting they were less prejudiced—though the volunteers themselves weren’t aware of any difference in their thinking. Since propranolol alters nerve circuits in the brain that govern panic, the study supports the notion that racism may be rooted in feelings of fear. The finding “raises the tantalizing possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs,” Oxford philosopher Julian Savulescu tells the London Telegraph. Not that he advocates their use to that end: “Biological research aiming to make people morally better has a dark history,” he says.

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