Health & Science

Old age begins … when you’re older; Back to the moon; If women had a hammer; Fine-feathered critics; Really old-time music

Old age begins … when you’re older

No matter what their chronological age, most senior citizens say that they aren’t yet “old”—and even if they are, that it’s not so bad. In a comprehensive national survey on aging conducted by the Pew Research Center, most people 65 and older responded that they didn’t experience the declines typically associated with aging—in memory, health, sex drive, and driving and other activities—to the degree that younger people tend to anticipate. As for when “old age” actually begins, that depends on the age of the person you ask, researchers found. More than half of the respondents under 30 said they believed the average person is old by 60. But most middle-aged respondents say it’s closer to 70, while those 65 and older say old age begins at 75. Most 75-year-olds, meanwhile, say they feel as if they’re only 65, and, in fact, most adults over 50 feel at least 10 years younger than their actual age. “There’s a saying that you’re never too old to feel young,” study author Paul Taylor tells The New York Times, “and, boy, have older Americans today taken that one to heart.”

Back to the moon

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NASA has successfully sent two satellites into orbit around the moon, the first U.S. spacecraft to visit our lunar neighbor in more than a decade. The probes’ mission is to map the moon’s topography and to scan its dark craters for signs of water-bearing ice. In October, the smaller of the two craft is scheduled to plunge into the surface and kick up a plume of dust to be analyzed for hints of water and minerals. Scientists see the mission as reconnaissance for NASA’s bid to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and perhaps establish a base there. While space exploration was once seen as a superpower competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it is no longer a “two-horse race,” says Japan just completed a moon mission, India has one in progress, the European Space Agency is mulling its own program, and China intends to land on the moon by 2012.

If women had a hammer

When it comes to hammering, men may be heavy hitters, but women hit the spot more often—at least with the lights on. When researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst asked subjects to pound away at targets on a metal plate in a well-lit room, men hit the surface twice as hard as women, but women were 10 percent more accurate. It was a different story in the dark, though: Men were 25 percent more accurate at hitting the targets, which were marked by glow-in-the-dark stickers. Researchers say the study shows that men tend to emphasize force over accuracy, while it’s the opposite for women. But that doesn’t explain why men did better in the dark. “We don’t have a good handle on the nature of the motor control and perceptive differences that would induce this difference,” researcher Duncan Irschick tells, “but we are excited to find out.”

Fine-feathered critics

Pigeons have good taste in art—or at least, they can acquire it. Shigeru Watanabe of Tokyo’s Keio University wondered if pigeons could be trained to grasp the concept of artistic beauty. He spent a month showing a series of children’s paintings (which had been judged “good” or “bad” by adults) to four birds. Pigeons that pecked at the “good” paintings got a food reward while those that didn’t got nothing. The pigeons soon learned to peck only at “good” images, applying that judgment even to paintings they hadn’t seen before. The results indicate that, like people, pigeons can use colors and patterns to categorize art, if not necessarily appreciate it. “The experiments demonstrated the ability of discrimination,” Watanabe tells New Scientist, “not the ability to enjoy painting.”

Really old-time music

Music is as old as humanity, a recent archaeological find in Germany suggests. Nicholas Conrad of Germany’s University of Tübingen unearthed what may be the oldest known handmade instrument: an 8-inch-long, five-note flute, carved from the bone of a vulture—crafted more than 35,000 years ago. Conrad found the instrument near another dazzling find, a voluptuous “Venus” statuette dating from the same period. Three other, more rudimentary flutes, made of ivory from a mammoth, were found at a nearby site. The flutes’ craftsmanship suggests they were made by Homo sapiens and indicate that early modern humans had a creative culture even before they had agriculture. The find also bolsters the theory that music bonded communities more closely together, helping early humans prevail over their Neanderthal cousins. “The flutes were likely used in all kinds of social settings,” Conrad tells “They were just lying there with everything else, which leads me to believe they were part of everyday life.”

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