A panda slims down to mate, Nobel prize winners live longer, and having kids shortens womens' lives.

I’ll Have What She’s Having
Even if you don’t trust a woman’s taste in music, clothing, or food, you might subconsciously trust her taste in men. A new study set to be published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B concludes that women are more likely to find men attractive if they see other women smiling at them. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland showed women pairs of pictures of men and asked them to choose the more attractive guy and rate how much more attractive he was. They then showed the women short videos with the same faces, but in each shot a woman was looking at the man with either a smile or a neutral expression. After watching the video, the women rated the men who got a smile higher than those who got the blank stare. The researchers say mate choice copying has been observed in other species, but this is the first time scientists have observed humans taking these sorts of cues from others. But when the scientists had men rate other men, they found that guys gave the highest attractiveness ratings to men who weren’t on the receiving end of a woman’s smile. The authors chalk this up to within-sex competition: When men see others beating them out, they get resentful.

Old Swive’s Tale
Ted Haggard and Mark Foley aren’t the only high-and-mighties who have succumbed sexual desires that clash with their images. According to Keene University historian Sarah Poynting, King Charles I, known for his devotion to his wife and for cleaning up drunkenness and profanity, had a rather immodest side himself. In the year before he was executed, Charles smuggled letters out of Carisbrooke Castle, where he was imprisoned. Some of the letters were partially in cipher, including those he sent to Jane Whorwood, stepdaughter of one of his former attendants. When Poynting deciphered one of these letters, she discovered a likely error in a previous decoding of it. Instead of saying, "Yet I imagine that there is one way possible that you may get answering from me," which would only be the case if Charles had made three errors in one word, the deciphered letter reads, "I imagine that there is one way possible that you may get a swiving from me."  A "swiving?" Yes, apparently the crazy kids of the 17th century used "swiving" as a particularly coarse term for sex, an the turn of phrase appeared most frequently in pornographic verse. While it would be unsurprising to see such a word used by the vulgar Charles II, Charles I’s obscene call to his mistress reveals a whole new side of the well-reputed king. Just imagine what they’ll find in Queen Elizabeth I’s nightstand.

Service Charge
They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and if the Treatment Information Group (TIG) has its way, do-gooder Zackie Achmat will receive one heck of a punishment. TIG is a South African group that advocates against use of antiretroviral drugs to treat AIDS, claiming that medicine like AZT does more harm than good. Achmat heads up the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an organization that has worked toward universal access to antiretrovirals in South Africa. The groups have clashed before, but TIG has now gone beyond making its argument in the editorial pages, charging Achmat with genocide in the International Criminal Court. Yes. Genocide. The draft bill of indictment says that "the [antiretroviral] drugs which Achmat has personally engineered into the South African public health system, and which he continues to promote reckless of the President and Health Minister’s warnings that they are dangerously toxic, are killing thousands of South Africans, mostly black." Achmat has not personally commented on TIG’s move, but a TAC official told the South African Daily Dispatch, “We’re ignoring it because we’re dealing with more important tasks—that is to support the country’s efforts to develop new strategic plans to save lives.” Carry on, soldiers.

True Love Weights
It is hard to tell what a "healthy" weight is today—BMI doesn’t differentiate between muscle and fat and we know the people in the movies are overly thin. But here’s one way to tell if you’re too fat: You can’t have the sex needed to ensure the survival of your species. Veterinarians at the Chiang Mai zoo in Thailand are putting Chuang Chuang, a 330-pound male panda, on a diet so that he can mate with female panda Lin Hui. The vets fear that if Chuang Chuang weighs more than 308 pounds, he might put too much pressure on Lin Hui while the pandas are getting it on. The new diet will consist of fewer carbs and more bamboo branches. Chuang Chuang, who is more reluctant to go after his nationally-appointed bride than Prince Charles ever was, had been tagged to watch "panda porn," in order to get him in the mood, but the plan was scrapped when research suggested that he might not learn from the videos. Now the zoo is considering bringing in a snow machine to simulate the bears’ natural climate. If all else fails, the zoo may resort to artificial insemination to save the dying breed. Come on, Chuang Chuang, when humans say "not even if we were the last two people on Earth," they don’t really mean that!

Sweet to the Swede
You can’t take it with you, but a Nobel Prize is a wonderful thing to have on this mortal coil. And maybe that’s why, as a recent study concludes, Nobel Prize winners tend to live about two years longer than those who are merely nominated for, but do not win, the award. Researchers studied scientists who were nominated for physics and chemistry Nobels between 1901 and 1950. They eliminated women and anyone who had died of non-biological causes, leaving a sample of 524 scientists, including 135 prizewinners. Those who won had an average lifespan of 77.2 years, while those who were nominated but didn’t win lived for 75.8 years on average. After a few statistical corrections, the authors conclude that winning a Nobel Prize adds about two years to the life of a scientist. The amount of money each winner received did not affect overall lifespan, and the researchers attribute the long lives to the status gained from the medal.

Dying Breeders
If you think caring for children is taking years off of your life, you might be right. While researchers always imagined there was a human "fitness cost" for having kids—the price parents pay in their own health and longevity—a new study actually quantifies this cost. Researchers found that a mother with 12 kids had a five times greater chance of dying prematurely than a mother of three. And the toll on women was greater than that on men: Older mothers were four times as likely to die within a year of having a child than their male spouses were. But the subject pool for the study may not be totally representative of modern society at large or of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The researchers looked at 21,684 couples who lived in Salt Lake City and married between 1860 and 1895. The subjects had just over eight kids per couple, on average. While a sample of 19th century Mormons may not seem to yield generalizable conclusions, the researchers say these folks span more social classes than those in previous studies, and the mortality rates are more likely to resemble pre-Industrial Revolution data. The researchers also found that fewer kids meant each child had a higher chance of survival. One-fifth of children in families of 12 or more died before turning 18, while only 10 percent of kids in families with one to three kids died before adulthood.

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Originally published January 22, 2007


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