Health & Science
Pluto’s hidden liquid ocean
Pluto has a surface temperature of about minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit, but scientists believe a vast liquid ocean may lie beneath the distant world’s icy crust. New research suggests a slushy sea consisting mostly of ammonia—a natural antifreeze— is buried roughly 100 miles below the giant impact basin known as Sputnik Planitia, near Pluto’s equator. The basin was created when the dwarf planet was hit by another object on the outer edges of the solar system. Scientists were tipped off to the possibility of an underground ocean by the fact that Pluto is “tidally locked” with its largest moon, Charon, which always hangs over a spot on the planet’s surface directly opposite from Sputnik Planitia. “If you drew a line from the center of Charon through the center of Pluto, and through the far side of Pluto, it would come out very near Sputnik Planitia,” lead researcher James Tuttle Keane tells Scientific American. After analyzing data from ground-based telescopes and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, scientists came up with an explanation: A subsurface ocean provides extra weight on that site of Pluto, forcing the tiny, lopsided world to roll over 60 degrees to balance itself with the gravitational pull of Charon. New Horizons photos show cracks in the surface at Sputnik Planitia consistent with expansion and contraction caused by an underground ocean melting and freezing. Radioactive heat from Pluto’s core helps keep the ocean partly liquid. The subterranean sea probably doesn’t harbor life, but these findings suggest that hidden oceans likely exist on other far-flung frozen worlds.
Dementia rates decline
The percentage of older people with dementia is on the decline, even though a cure for this devastating condition remains elusive, The New York Times reports. Based on surveys of 21,000 older adults, University of Michigan found the dementia rate among older Americans fell from about 12 percent in 2000 to roughly 9 percent in 2012. That translates to about 1 million fewer Americans suffering from the condition. The reasons for this unexpected drop aren’t clear. Scientists speculate that more people are receiving effective treatment for conditions linked to dementia, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, both of which can impair blood flow to the brain. It’s also possible that a climb in the average education levels of older adults plays a role: Previous studies suggest that higher learning creates more complicated connections between nerve cells, which may help protect the brain against cognitive decline. But while the risk for dementia may be decreasing slightly, study author Dr. Kenneth Langa warns that the total number of Americans with dementia will continue to climb as the massive baby boomer generation moves into its 60s, 70s, and 80s. “This is still going to be a top-priority issue for families, and for health policy, now and in the coming decades,” Langa says.
The toll of toxic sexism
Men who feel a need to dominate women and consider themselves “playboys” are more likely to suffer from depression and other psychological problems, according to new research. An analysis of nearly 80 different studies involving 20,000 men found those who adhere to traditional masculine norms—including a need to win, aggression, emotional isolation, and pursuit of sexual conquests—are more likely to suffer from depression, stress, body image issues, and substance abuse, reports The Washington Post. Because they believe manliness requires self-reliance, these men are also less likely to seek out help for their problems, leaving them isolated and deprived of meaningful relationships. The study’s lead author, Y. Joel Wong, argues that sexist ideas about “manly” behavior are toxic to society as a whole, but that it’s possible for men to reinvent their interpretation of masculinity. “Just because you’ve always behaved in a particular way,” Wong says, “doesn’t mean you’ve got no choice.”
Better weather forecasts
Weather forecasts will soon become more accurate. That’s because NASA recently launched into space the most powerful weather satellite ever built, providing America with its first major upgrade in more than 20 years. The weather satellite, known as GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite– R Series), is the first of a new generation of satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The revolutionary environmental satellite is being hailed by meteorologists as a game changer, one that will enable them to monitor atmospheric changes across the entire Western hemisphere five times faster and with four times greater resolution. “For weather forecasters, GOES-R will be similar to going from a black-and-white TV to super-high-definition TV,” NOAA official Stephen Volz tells The Christian Science Monitor. “For the American public, that will mean faster, more accurate weather forecasts and warnings.” Scientists say GOES-R will provide local officials with valuable time to respond to major weather events such as hurricanes and blizzards.
Health scare of the week
Pessimism linked to heart disease
Pessimists tend to expect the worst and never see the silver lining in bad news. N ew research suggests that this gloom and doom could increase their risk of death from heart disease. Finnish researchers followed 2,267 middle-aged and older men and women for 11 years and evaluated their outlook on life. Over the course of the study, the researchers found, those who scored highest on the pessimism scale were more than twice as likely to have died of heart disease as those who ranked lowest. “Your personality traits can make physical health worse,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Mikko Pankalainen, tells The New York Times. “If you’re pessimistic and have some health issues, then it’s even more important to take care of your physical health.” It’s not known why this association exists, but researchers suggest pessimism may increase inflammation and other factors that negatively affect heart health, while also making people less proactive in pursuing healthy habits.