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Health & Science

A new strategy to slow climate change; Data stored in atoms; A pill to replace exercise?; Men spend for scarce women

A new strategy to slow climate change
The world could make a big dent in global warming without reducing fossil fuel emissions, says an international team of scientists. Given the strong resistance to curbing fossil fuels, they say, policymakers could buy some time by shifting their focus to reducing emissions of soot and methane. “In the short term, dealing with these pollutants is more doable, and it brings fast benefits,” Drew Shindell, a researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, tells Agence France-Presse. Soot, or black carbon, is produced by unfiltered diesel engines, inefficient boilers, and, in the developing world, cookstoves and kilns. Particularly when it falls on snowpack and ice, soot helps heat the planet by absorbing radiation from the sun. Methane, which traps heat in the atmosphere far more effectively than carbon dioxide does, leaks in great quantities from oil- and gas-producing facilities, coal mines, pipelines, sewage plants, and farm ponds. Using existing technologies, we could capture much of this methane and soot before it reaches the atmosphere, and reduce projected warming by more than a third. As a result, the amount of warming expected by 2050 would be lower by about one degree Fahrenheit. Reducing soot and methane are “things we know how to do and have done,” Shindell says. “We just haven’t done them worldwide.”

Data stored in atoms
IBM researchers have managed to store a single bit of data—the basic one or zero that is the building block for all computing—in just 12 atoms. That’s a phenomenal leap beyond the efficiency of current computers, which need roughly 1 million atoms per bit. To set up the tiny storage system, engineers used a scanning tunneling microscope at temperatures near absolute zero. Instead of collecting atoms that spin in the same direction to hold memory, they alternated iron atoms that rotate one way with ones that turn in the opposite direction, arranging them in two rows of six on a copper-nitride surface. That alternating alignment—called antiferromagnetic—kept the atoms from creating a magnetic field that would repel other atoms, allowing researchers to “really pack them right next to each other,” study author Andreas Heinrich tells MSNBC.com. The technique could lead to computers that store orders of magnitude more data than current ones do, while expending far less energy. But adapting the new technology to mass production is “a huge engineering challenge,” Heinrich says, that might take another decade to overcome.

A pill to replace exercise?
What if we could pop a pill to enjoy the weight-loss benefits of hitting the gym? It sounds like a fantasy, but Harvard Medical School researchers say such a drug may be just years away. When we exercise, they’ve found, our muscles produce a hormone that communicates with our body fat. Named irisin, the newfound hormone appears to transform unhealthy, stagnant white fat cells into brown fat cells, which burn calories instead of storing them. Researchers put both mice and people on exercise regimens and found that their irisin levels increased markedly. When they then injected overweight, sedentary mice with an irisin-boosting protein, the mice lost weight, just as if they had been running regularly. The finding is “an extraordinary discovery,” biologist Sven Enerbäck, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, tells The New York Times. Down the road, he says, it could lead to “a new treatment” for obesity and diabetes. Study author Bruce Spiegelman insists that he and his team are “not trying to replace diet and exercise,” which provide other health benefits in addition to keeping people slim. But they do hope additional irisin can make goods habits more effective, and help people with immobilizing injuries or illnesses stay reasonably fit.

Men spend for scarce women
Where there’s a shortage of women, men tend to be far more reckless with their money. University of Minnesota researchers came to that conclusion after asking male volunteers to read news articles that reported either that local men far outnumbered women, or vice versa. When they then asked them about their financial plans, they found that the men who believed women were in short supply proposed saving 42 percent less from their paychecks—and borrowing 84 percent more—than men who believed the reverse. “What we see in other animals is that when females are scarce, males become more competitive,” study author Vladas Griskevicius tells ScienceDaily.com. Similarly, to vie for mates, men spend freely as a display of status. The findings are reflected in the real world: In Columbus, Ga., for instance, where single men outnumber women, average debt is almost $3,500 higher than in nearby Macon, where there are more women than men. In places where women are in the minority, Griskevicius says, they appear to feel that “men should go out of their way to court them,’’ and to spend freely on dinners, gifts, and engagement rings.

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