Feature

Health & Science

The Pacific Northwest’s coming quake; The case for books; Hey there, big boy; Killers in your garden; Conversations you can’t ignore

The Pacific Northwest’s coming quake
The Pacific Northwest is due for a massive earthquake like those that recently devastated Chile and Haiti, says The Seattle Times. Oregon State University geologists recently concluded that in the next 50 years the region has a 1-in-3 chance of experiencing a major, destructive quake with a magnitude of 8 or even 9—about as large as quakes come. “It’s not a question of if a major earthquake will strike,” says study author Chris Goldfinger, who has conducted a new analysis of the region’s faults. “It is a matter of when. And the ‘when’ is looking like it might not be that far in the future.” The region is quake-prone because it sits atop a subduction zone, where the Pacific plate slips unevenly beneath the North American plate. Goldfinger found four separate segments in the zone, each building up pressure as the plates grind against each other. That raises the risk of a “megaquake” that could rip up highways, topple buildings, and trigger a tsunami. The last major quake to hit the region struck in 1700 and caused a 30-foot tsunami that rolled across the entire Pacific Ocean and smashed into Japan.

The case for books
What influences how far a child will advance in her education? The parents’ level of education would seem like a strong indicator, but it turns out there’s an even more concrete one, says LiveScience.com: the number of books in the home. A recent study by University of Nevada sociologists analyzed 20 years of data on 73,000 people in 27 countries, including the U.S. It found that a child born into a family of average income and education but with 500 books in the house would, on average, attain 12 years of education—three years more than an equivalent child with no books at home. The more books are present, the greater the educational benefit. “Even a little bit goes a long way,” says study author Mariah Evans. The presence of books, in fact, was twice as important to children’s progress in school as the father’s level of education. “You get a lot of ‘bang for your book,’” Evans says.

Hey there, big boy
If you’re striving to seem sexy, try lowering your voice. In fact, odds are good that you already do so without thinking about it. Psychologists from Albright College in Pennsylvania had students of both genders view images of people, then had them leave a scripted voice-mail message for the person in the picture. The more attractive the person in the image (as rated by the subject), the more the subject lowered his voice in the phone message. The same held true for women, despite the expectation that women will raise their pitch to sound more feminine. “There appears to be a common stereotype in our culture that deems a sexy female voice as one that sounds husky, breathy, and lower-pitched,” study author Susan Hughes tells the London Daily Telegraph. So if you hear a woman or a man lower their voice when speaking to a member of the opposite sex, it’s likely that they’re flirting.

Killers in your garden
Earthworms spend their time underground eating dead plant material, recycling nutrients, and improving the soil for living plants. Or so scientists thought. A recent study by German biologists hints at more troubling activity. When given a choice of foods to eat in the lab, worms of the common species Lumbricus terrestris actively sought out and ate living, nitrogen-rich seeds and seedlings—effectively killing the plants. Worms that did so gained weight and clearly got a nutritional boost from their living meals. Far from being the farmer’s friend, it seems, some worms “function as seedling predators”—as pests, study author Nico Eisenhauer tells BBC.com. Originally from Europe, Lumbricus terrestris in fact has invaded the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The new finding suggests that it and other invasive earthworms may be playing a direct role in the reduction or even extinction of certain native plants.

Conversations you can’t ignore

Overhearing someone else’s cell phone conversation can be a deeply irritating experience. Now scientists have a bead on why. Cornell University researchers gave subjects various tasks that required them to concentrate. While some volunteers worked in a quiet environment, others had to listen to either a dialogue, a monologue, or a “halfalogue”—one side of a dialogue—while they worked. The group listening to half a conversation performed the worst. That, researchers said, is because the brain automatically strives to make sense of conversations and predict what speakers will say next. When half the conversation is unheard, the brain struggles—and finds it hard to do anything else. “You get less information and you can’t predict as well,” study co-author Lauren Emberson tells the London Daily Telegraph. “It requires more attention.”

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