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Researchers discovered an “Obama effect”: African Americans’ performance on a verbal test improved, to equal that of white
Americans, immediately after Obama’s nomination and his election. African-American parents were found to be warier than white American parents of enrolling their children in medical-research studies. Vicks VapoRub may harm children, zinc supplements reduce alcohol-related birth defects, and rats whose mothers drink during pregnancy are, on reaching puberty, excited by the smell of alcohol on another rat’s breath. Orphaned infant chimps who are cared for lovingly by humans are smarter than human babies. Women are good at distinguishing cute babies from ugly babies, but menopausal women are as bad as men at doing so. A newborn boy in Colorado was found to have a hand, a foot, a thigh, and intestines growing in his brain. Girls are four times better than boys at growing up with heroin-addict parents, teenagers in love get in less trouble, and adolescents with unpopular names are more likely to commit crimes. Cows with names produce 3.4 percent more milk than nameless cows.

A Scottish study determined that romantic  comedies can create unrealistic expectations, and researchers at the University of the Balearic Islands determined that Spaniards prefer passionate love. Dutch doctors who observed heterosexual couples having sex in MRI scanners found that the missionary position causes the penis to curve like a boomerang; Pfizer was planning to introduce Xiaflex, a drug that straightens crooked penises. In western Iran, the growing popularity of taqaandan, a pastime in which the top half of the erect penis is wrenched sharply to one side and “popped,” and which has led to an epidemic of penile fractures, was becoming a public-health concern. “The practice of taqaandan is increasing,” said urologist Javaad Zargooshi, “and we don’t know why.” The Persian army was found to have used poisonous gas on Roman troops in its 256 a.d. siege of the city of Dura, and a 2,700-year-old marijuana stash discovered in the Gobi Desert was judged to be of high quality.

An Arizona cosmologist urged scientists to search for a “shadow biosphere” that may exist, undetected, alongside our own. Shadow life, it has been suggested, would be descended of a “second genesis” and would prove that life on Earth evolved twice over. A British astrophysicist calculated that 37,964 planets in the Milky Way are sufficiently hospitable to harbor higher life forms and that 361 are likely home to intelligent civilizations. Biologists warned that human pressures were causing large mammals to shrink, pedigree dogs were getting stupider, and it was surmised that early herders bred animals to produce spotted coats. Scientists still could not say why zebras have stripes. More men than women migrated out of Africa. A Florida synthetic-biology lab announced the creation of a chemical compound capable of Darwinian evolution but said that the compound was not yet capable of living on its own. “It is not self-sustaining,” explained the lab’s head scientist. “You have to have a graduate student stand there and feed it.” Swarms of immortal jellyfish were spreading through the world’s oceans.


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April 2009