Health & Science

A better way to board a plane; Fewer Americans smoke; A molecular motor; A new link in human evolution

A better way to board a plane

The exasperating ordeal of boarding a commercial airplane has left many travelers grumbling that there must be a better way. Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at Fermilab, says he’s devised one that would cut boarding times in half. Using computer modeling and live tests, he found that seating blocks of passengers from back to front, as many airlines do, is the slowest possible method of filling a plane, he tells New Scientist. It forces people to clog the aisles while they wait to “put their stuff away” or gain access to window seats. His improved method: After seating families, fill the window seats first, starting at the back of one side of the plane and working forward by even or odd rows—10A, 8A, 6A, for example—then do the same on the opposite side. After the remaining window slots are filled, middle seats would board using the same pattern, followed by the aisles. Steffen calculates that his time-saving method could reduce airlines’ costs by hundreds of millions of dollars per year, but so far they’re not biting. “I haven’t received a phone call yet,” he says.

Fewer Americans smoke

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Cigarette smoking continues to decline, but at a rate that frustrates health advocates. A new CDC survey shows that just over 19 percent of the adult population lit up last year, down from nearly 21 percent in 2005. Smokers also puffed an average of 1.6 fewer cigarettes per day, for a total of about 15. Still, the CDC estimates that roughly half of today’s smokers will die of tobacco-related diseases, which strike down 443,000 Americans per year. Smoking appears to be declining more slowly now than in past decades, and the CDC estimates that 17 percent of Americans will still be smokers in 2020—as opposed to the 12 percent goal previously set by government officials. “The tobacco companies are winning the battle,” Michael Siegel, a public-health professor at Boston University, tells The Wall Street Journal. CDC official Tim McAfee says the “slowing trend shows the need for intensified efforts” to convince smokers to quit and nonsmokers not to start. States with the toughest smoking bans and anti-tobacco ad campaigns, such as Utah and California, had the smallest proportion of smokers—about one in 10. In more tobacco-friendly states, such as Ohio and Kentucky, the rate was closer to one in four.

A molecular motor

Chemists at Tufts University have created the world’s smallest electric motor out of a single molecule. The device, 60,000 times thinner than a human hair, can be set whirring without affecting neighboring molecules, unlike previous versions of nano-motors fueled by light, heat, or chemicals. The motor molecule—butyl methyl sulfide—is made up of a single sulfur atom attached to a string of carbon and hydrogen atoms. When researchers positioned the molecule on a copper surface, the sulfur atom bonded to the copper, creating an axis. Then, using a cutting-edge microscope, the researchers shot the molecule with a beam of electrons, causing the chain of carbon atoms to spin around the sulfur axis like propeller blades in a direction “that is not just random,” study author Charles Sykes tells He and colleagues had to use extremely cold temperatures to slow the molecule’s movement enough so that its rotations could be measured. If the motor can be controlled at normal temperatures, it could one day be developed into microscopic machinery to perform single-cell surgery or power minuscule computer chips.

A new link in human evolution

Fossils of an ape-like creature that walked upright and had other human-like features may be the oldest direct ancestor of modern humans ever found. The 1.97-million-year-old fossils, found in a South African cave, belong to a previously undiscovered species of hominid that was midway in the process of evolving from ape to human—still living mostly in trees, but with the ability to walk and a thumb that could have enabled it to handle tools. Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa has dug up several well-preserved skulls and bones from the new species, after his 9-year-old son first spotted one of the bones while chasing his dog into a South African cave. Berger believes the new species, Australopithecus sediba, is the most probable direct ancestor yet found of our genus, Homo. Sediba’s pelvis and legs are surprisingly similar to our own, but it had a much smaller brain and long arms, feet, and shoulders like those of an ape. Even paleoanthropologists who aren’t convinced that Berger’s discovery is a direct human ancestor agree that it raises new questions about the evolutionary transition from ape to man. Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, tells The New York Times the discovery “holds the possibility of flinging wide open the question of what Homo is.”

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