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While You Were Sleeping
Published on Friday, December 30, 2005 by the New York Times
While You Were Sleeping
by William Falk
 

IT was a year of apocalyptic events. Hurricanes and floods and earthquakes humbled us. Holy wars raged at home and abroad. Deep Throat was unmasked, but the hero of Watergate, Bob Woodward, re-emerged in a strange new guise, covering up White House secrets. Avian flu lurked. Brad dumped Jen, the girl next door, and took up with the enchantress Angelina.

Amid such catastrophes, it was easy to miss news of more subtle significance. Here are just a few of the developments that may have slipped your notice in 2005:

A BLAST FROM THE PAST To find out whether human activities are changing the atmosphere, scientists took ice cores from ancient glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Bubbles of air trapped in the ice provided a pristine sampling of the atmosphere going back 650,000 years. The study, published last month in the journal Science, found that the level of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that can warm the planet, is now 27 percent higher than at any previous time. The level is even far higher now than it was in periods when the climate was much warmer and North America was largely tropical. Climatologists said the ice cores left no doubt that the burning of fossil fuels is altering the atmosphere in a substantial and unprecedented way.

THE DAY AFTER TODAY One of the more alarming possible consequences of global warming appears to be already under way. The rapid melting of the Arctic and Greenland ice caps, a new study finds, is causing freshwater to flood into the North Atlantic. That infusion of icy water appears to be deflecting the northward flow of the warming Gulf Stream, which moderates winter temperatures for Europe and the northeastern United States. The flow of the Gulf Stream has been reduced by 30 percent since 1957, the National Oceanography Center in Britain found. Perhaps you'll remember that in the film "The Day After Tomorrow," the collapse of the Gulf Stream produces a violent climate shift and a new ice age for much of the Northern Hemisphere. Climatologists don't foresee a future quite that catastrophic, but something worrisome, they say, is afoot.

THE SPANISH FLU LIVES! Scientists have resurrected the Spanish flu virus that killed an estimated 25 million people in 1918. The reborn virus, pieced together from fragments found in tissue samples of the flu's victims, was injected into a group of laboratory mice. It proved incredibly lethal, producing 39,000 times more copies of itself than regular flu and killing all the mice in six days. This viral Frankenstein, perhaps the most deadly pathogen in human history, now lives on in quarantine. Many experts were alarmed when scientists published the flu's genetic blueprint; it would not be hard, they said, for a terrorist group or a madman to hire scientists to make the virus, quietly unleash it and kill more people than several nuclear weapons could.

FORBIDDEN VACCINE Ever year, about 500,000 women throughout the world develop cervical cancer. In the United States alone, the disease kills about 3,700 women annually. This year, scientists developed a vaccine against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that is the primary cause of cervical cancer. The vaccine produced 100 percent immunity in the 6,000 women who received it as part of a multinational trial. As soon as the vaccine is licensed, some health officials say, it should be administered to all girls at age 12. But the Family Research Council and other social conservative groups vowed to fight that plan, even though it could virtually eliminate cervical cancer. Vaccinating girls against a sexually transmitted disease, they say, would reduce their incentive to abstain from premarital sex.

FORBIDDEN IDEAS With more than 100 million users, the Internet is booming in China. The American Web giants Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have all grabbed a piece of the lucrative Chinese market - but only after agreeing to help the government censor speech on the Web. In providing portals or search engines, all three companies are abiding by the government's censorship of certain ideas and keywords, like "Tiananmen massacre," "Taiwanese independence," "corruption" and "democracy." Most foreign news sites are blocked. This year, Yahoo even supplied information that helped the government track and convict a political dissident who sent an e-mail message with forbidden thoughts from a Yahoo account; he was sentenced to 10 years in jail. "Business is business," said Jack Ma, Yahoo's chief in China. "It's not politics."

AMERICA'S MOST WANTED Why is Osama bin Laden still at large more than four years after 9/11? The new C.I.A. director, Porter J. Goss, provided a big hint. He said that the United States had a good idea of where Mr. bin Laden was hiding, but that sovereign states would not let a proper manhunt be mounted. Mr. Goss's statement seemed to confirm the widespread suspicion that Mr. bin Laden was hiding in the mountains of northern Pakistan but that President Pervez Musharraf, fearing the reaction of Islamic militants, was not eager for him to be captured. Mr. Musharraf himself lent support to that theory, telling an interviewer: "One would prefer that he's captured somewhere outside Pakistan. By some other people."

MOM WAS RIGHT Scientists have always scoffed at the notion that getting a chill can lead to a cold. Viruses cause colds, they say, not cold air. But a new study found that dormant infections can be activated when certain parts of the body, particularly the feet and the nose, get wet and cold. In the study, 90 volunteers spent 20 minutes with their feet in a bucket of cold water. Over the next five days, 29 percent came down with colds, compared with 9 percent of a control group. Researchers said that getting a chill might constrict blood vessels and reduce the circulation of white blood cells that fight infection.

IT WON'T LAST Falling madly in love significantly changes our body chemistry - but not for long. Researchers from Italy studied a group of people who had fallen in mad, passionate love in the past six months, comparing them with people in longer-term relationships and with single people. The group consumed with passion had more of a stimulating protein called nerve growth factor in their blood. The more intense the feelings of infatuation, the more nerve growth factor there was. But when these same lovers were tested a year later, the levels had dropped back down to normal. Someone should warn Brad and Angelina: their year is up.

William Falk is the editor in chief of The Week magazine.

© Copyright 2005 New York Times

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