Human Nature

Disperse or Be Microwaved

And other news from science and technology.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on stem cells, mandatory pregnancy, and more, click here.)

The military plans to deploy a microwave ray gun for riot control in Iraq. Its purpose is to cause pain and disperse crowds quickly without killing. Critics ask: If it’s not harmful, why were test subjects instructed to protect themselves by removing eyewear and metal objects?

Doctors have kept a brain-dead, cancer-riddled woman alive long enough to save her fetus. In the two and a half months since her brain died, the cancer has engulfed her organs, but the fetus has grown to viability (24 weeks). Doctors hope to postpone delivery till 32 weeks.

The long-term disability rate in kids born very prematurely and underweight has not improved. We’re keeping more of them  alive, but they have big, costly problems. This is fueling debate over the  wisdom of trying to save them.

Republicans are embracing a possible way to get stem cells without killing embryos. It involves fusing already-produced stem cells with a patient’s body cells to make customized “stembrids.” Skeptics think the GOP is hyping this method to lure senators away from a bill that funds regular stem-cell research. (Link goes to paid site.)

Dark chocolate reduces high blood pressure and bad cholesterol. Scientists think the key ingredients are flavonoids. The catch: Flavonoids make chocolate bitter (milk chocolate doesn’t have much of them), and doctors want to maximize the ratio of flavonoids to fat and sugar.

The world will have nine billion people by 2050. Good news: The rate of growth has fallen by 40 percent. Bad news: Europe will have nearly one retiree for every worker.

Some pro-choicers are pushing legislation to stop pollution of fetuses through mercury, pesticides, and gasoline. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said, “If ever we had proof that our nation’s pollution laws aren’t working, it’s reading the list of industrial chemicals in the bodies of babies who have not yet lived outside the womb.”

Elephants are genetically losing their tusks due to poaching. Because poachers kill elephants with the biggest tusks,  5 percent to 10 percent of China’s Asian elephants now carry a gene that prevents tusk development. The trend reportedly extends to India and Africa.

The FDA approved the first brain pacemaker for depression. Thirty thousand people with other conditions already wear the implant, which sends electrical impulses to the brain.

Scientists proposed rules for humanizing monkeys’ brains. It’s more ethical to test human brain stem-cell therapies in monkeys than in people, but near-human species such as chimpanzees have the highest risk of developing human abilities as a result. This report says the risk is low but can’t be ruled out.

A study indicatesprayer for ill, faraway strangers doesn’t help. Previous studies suggested prayer might help, but skeptics thought those studies were skewed by psychological benefits of praying for oneself or being part of a religious community. This study eliminated those factors. Believers in prayer responded by rejecting the falsifiability of God’s power.

Scientists are asking the pope to clarify the Catholic position on evolution.They’re disturbed by a senior cardinal’s recent suggestion that Catholics can’t accept Darwinian randomness.

Republicans are preparing to flood the Senate with “alternative” stem-cell bills to lure senators away from a stem-cell research bill that the president would have to veto. The alternatives avoid killing embryos, but it would take time to make them work. (For Human Nature’s take, click here.)

Some drugs for Parkinson’s can cause compulsive gambling. Some people taking the drugs also showed “abnormally increased appetites for food, alcohol and sex.” These results are rare. Evidently the drugs “affect parts of the brain that are crucial for regulating behavior.”

Cell phones make driving four times more dangerous even with hands-free devices. The devices cause no significant difference, confirming that the distraction is the conversation, not holding the phone.

A prominent Catholic cardinal is challenging evolution. The cardinal, widely seen as a potential future pope, says Catholicism could accept that species have common ancestors but not “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” He thinks evolution should be taught as only one of many theories. Some critics worry that a fight will hurt the teaching of evolution; others worry that it will hurt Catholicism.

The Senate might reject an embryonic stem-cell research bill and spend the money instead to try to get embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. ESCR backers aren’t sure whether to support the alternatives or to fight them because they’ll take money from ESCR. Opponents aren’t sure whether to support the alternatives or to fight them because they create creepy, embryolike things. (For Human Nature’s take, click here.)

A computer won five of six chess games against the world’s 13th-ranked player. The sixth game was a draw. Analysts are coming around to the view that computer vs. human is no longer a fair fight.

A study outlines ways to grow meat in labs. We could engineer it to be healthier, and it would help the environment, since by one estimate 21 percent of human-generated carbon dioxide is produced by animals we use for food. Unmentioned benefit: We would kill fewer animals.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The forced marriage of stem-cell opponents. 2) The lesson of the Schiavo autopsy. 3)  Mandatory pregnancy: A true story. 4) Abortion and responsibility. 5) The coming war over IVF. 6) Bush’s hypocrisy on stem cells and the death penalty. 7) The evolution of creationism. 8) Why GPS tracking is good for felons. 9) If steroids are cheating, why isn’t LASIK?