Malaysian astronauts hold off on tying the knot, a lack of white matter could render you tone deaf, and a Southeastern community takes deforestation into its own hands.

mwcolumn.jpg MAGGIE WITTLIN  Column Archive

Bachelor of Science
Two of Malaysia’s most eligible young studs have put off tying the knot for the sake of their country. Orthopedic doctor Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, 34, won a nationwide hunt to be Malaysia’s first astronaut—he will be launched into space in September of 2007. Army dentist Faiz Khaleed, 26, is Muszaphar’s backup for the honor. The two have signed a contract saying they will not wed until the mission returns in 2008, claiming this will help them keep their minds off women and on the task ahead. (Just like fasting makes you stop thinking about food, right?)

In Muszaphar’s spare time, this stud capitalizes on his searing hotness by modeling professionally. He has however given up those aspirations for a career as a doctor, and he insists he was chosen for the space mission on merit, not on looks or popularity. Sorry, girls: While Muszaphar may not be hitching up any time soon, he does have a steady girlfriend, and he reports she understands that the mission comes first. Faiz, however, is reportedly single and not too shabby in the looks department himself. Reach for the stars, girls!

Singin’ in the Brain
When it comes to musical ability, you’ve either got it, or you don’t. And by “it” I mean enough white matter to keep you from being completely tone deaf. According to a study recently published in the journal Brain, the amount of white matter in the right interior frontal gyrus of the brain corresponds with melody-related musical abilities. Researchers tested people for six standardly measurable abilities: sense of meter, ability to remember a tune, ability to decipher changes in key, pitch, pitch direction, and rhythm. While they did not find a correlation between amount of brain matter and rhythmic ability, they did see that the “amusical” or “frequentatiometrically challenged” or “disastrously tone deaf” had an abnormally low amount of brain mass. Information within the brain is transmitted via white matter, and the researchers suggest that a deficiency of it may inhibit communication within the right hemisphere of the brain, preventing musical comprehension.

Risky Business
A recent paper by a legal scholar and an economist concludes that parental notification or consent laws, which require minors to tell their parents if they decide to get an abortion, reduce incidence of risky sex among teenagers. The researchers looked at rates of gonorrhea infection as a measure of risky sex. They found that in states where parental notification laws have gone into effect, teen gonorrhea rates dropped an average of 20 percent for Hispanic girls and 12 percent for white girls. (The researchers were unable to get significant results for black girls.) “This suggests that Hispanic and white teenage girls are forward looking in their sex decisions, and they systematically view informing their parents and obtaining parental consent as additional costs in obtaining an abortion,” said one of the paper’s authors. The researchers admitted they could not tell whether teens were actually having less sex or just using condoms more frequently.

Godless Killing Machine
Apparently Paddington Bear isn’t satisfied with eating marmalade: He apparently got a taste for flesh and would not rest until he consumed the innocent lives of 2,500 New Hampshire trout. An investigation into the troutocide yielded an innocent looking stuffed teddy bear wearing a yellow hat and raincoat, which clogged a drain in a Fish and Game Department hatchery. The blocked drain cut off oxygen flow to the pool, suffocating the fish. Officials have stated that this bear is the first stuffed toy to cause any casualties at the facility, and he is certainly the first to cause death on such a massive scale. But will he be the last? He will, if hatchery supervisor Robert Fawcett has anything to say about it. Fawcett issued a written release stating, “RELEASE OF ANY TEDDY BEARS into the fish hatchery water IS NOT PERMITTED.”

Taking the Mona out of Monastic
The infamous Mona Lisa was apparently actuallyMama Lisa. According to recent work by a team of Canadian scientists, when the smiler sat for her portrait she had just given birth. The researchers used hi-tech infrared and three-dimensional technology to look through layers of pain and glimpse the until now unseen detail. They found that Mona was wearing a specific kind of gauze veil that was only worn by women who were pregnant or recent mothers. Since the subject of the painting has been identified as Lisa Gherardini, aka La Gioconda, and was the mother of five children, the researchers were able to precisely date the painting to 1503, just after the birth of her second son. The scientists have uncovered a few less matronly details, including the classification Mona Lisa’s true hairstyle: While people had frequently commented on her hair flowing freely over her shoulders, a style only worn by young girls and “women of poor virtue,” the scientists have now seen that her hair was in a bonnet and only a few curls had escaped. Thank you, science, for restoring dignity to Mona Lisa.

Logging Out
Say you owned a few beautiful acres of lush woodland that had become home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Now say the Fish and Wildlife Service told you they were working on redrawing a map of woodpecker populations that may label your property protected habitat. That designation would make it tougher for you to get clearing and building permits for the land. What would you do?

If you said, “I’d clear all the land before they can stop me,” you have the same cut-the-baby-in-half attitude as the good citizens of Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina. After the FWS told Boiling Spring Lakes that they were considering designating more land for protection, many of its citizens began clearing their property, making it uninhabitable for the woodpecker and therefore not in need of protection. There may be as few as 15,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers in the pine forests along the east coast of the United States, and past human activity has made Boiling Spring Lakes the ideal habitat for the bird: Long ago, people carved notches into the trees that allowed fungus to creep into the trunks, making it easier for woodpeckers to excavate inside the tree. City commissioners have proposed stopping the issue of lot-clearing permits for one year in an effort to halt the rampant deforestation.

Dumb Jocks
According to a recent Yale study, too much testosterone can cause brain cell death, similar to that observed in Alzheimer’s patients. While a little testosterone goes a long way toward fostering development, differentiation, and growth of cells, heavy doses can wreak havoc on the neurons. Researchers also tested excessive doses of estrogen on brain cells, but found it to be “neuroprotective,” since it actually decreased cell death. Yeah, that’s right: Estrogen is the thinking man’s steroid. Head researcher Barbara Erlich added, “Next time a muscle-bound guy in a sports car cuts you off on the highway, don’t get mad—just take a deep breath and realize that it might not be his fault.” Right—you should brush it off because his brain might be undergoing rapid apoptosis(programmed cell death) not because he could crush you with his bare hands.

Originally published October 3, 2006

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