September 25, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 1

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    Chicago In the News

    The Chronicle’s biweekly column Chicago In the News offers a digest of commentary and quotations by a few of the University faculty members, students and alumni who have been headlining the news in recent weeks. Chicago faculty members are some of the most frequently quoted experts, so space allows publishing references to only selected examples. To read many of the full newspaper articles mentioned in this column, visit the University News Office Web site: http://news.uchicago.edu.

    Going meat-free to save planet
    Pamela Martin, Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, talked about saving the environment by giving up meat, on “The Takeaway,” a public radio co-production between the BBC and The New York Times. Martin said that methane and nitrous oxide—both produced in the production of livestock—have much more harmful effects on the environment than carbon dioxide. “Those are potent greenhouse gases, and when we add up the impact of all of these, it’s quite large,” said Martin. As reported in Time, she and geophysicist Gidon Eschel estimated that if every American reduced their meat consumption by 20 percent, it would save as much greenhouse gas as switching from a normal sedan to a hybrid Prius. One United Nations official recently proposed that people abstain from meat once a week to combat global warming, especially since Western diets are quickly being “exported” to developing nations.

    Loneliness can be life-threatening
    John Cacioppo, the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and the College, talked about increasingly lonely Americans in a Sunday, Sept. 14 article in the Chicago Tribune. In 2004, sociologists surveyed about 1,500 adults and found Americans had one-third fewer confidants—described as people with whom you “discuss important matters”—than in 1995. Cacioppo co-authored Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, in which he writes that 60 million Americans (or about 20 percent) feel lonely to the point of unhappiness. Loneliness has an impact on health comparable to high blood pressure, a lack of exercise, obesity or smoking. “Loneliness is not only a sad event, it’s a threatening event,” Cacioppo said. “Loneliness is a pain signal calling attention to an important need. It’s the same as hunger, thirst and pain.” The book also was detailed in the Boston Globe and Chicago Public Radio.

    Jean Bethke Elshtain

    Debating the politics of 9/11
    Jean Bethke Elshtain spoke as part of a panel on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on the seventh anniversary of 9/11. Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor in the Divinity School, was asked whether the horrific events of the day have been politicized over time. “I don’t see how one could object entirely to an event as traumatic and horrific as that and unusual in our history becoming a subject for politics,” she said. “It’s like saying the Civil War shouldn’t have been politicized or World War II or Korea or Vietnam. Of course it will be. The question is, what kind of politics? What’s the language in which we debate 9/11? Do we remember it as a tragedy, rather like a natural flood or an earthquake? Was it an act of war? This is simply inevitable.&rdqui;

    ‘How’s My Driving?’ Safer
    A New York Times author detailed a lecture by Lior Strahilevitz, the Walter Mander Teaching Scholar and Professor in the Law School, in a Wednesday, Sept. 17 article about bumper stickers saving lives. The “How’s My Driving?” bumper stickers have been credited with reducing “fleet accidents” by 20 to 53 percent, according to the author, with the idea being that drivers are less likely to violate the rules of the road if they could be reported. Strahilevitz proposes extending the system so that the government would require all cars to carry the stickers and allow citizens to police themselves. Strahilevitz said it would give value to “millions of daily stranger-on-stranger driving observations that presently go to waste.&rdqui;

    Bacteria may help fight diabetes
    University researchers have found that microbes in the intestines of mice can help ward off type 1 diabetes, according to the Friday, Sept. 19 issue of Nature. Humans and animals are home to a community of trillions of harmless microbes or “microbiomes,” which have previously been linked to obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. But Alexander Chervonsky, Associate Professor in Pathology, and researchers found that mice raised in a sterile environment but inoculated with bacteria developed diabetes less frequently than their bacteria-free peer group. “The hypothesis is that if you are exposed to a whole lot of pathogens, you jazz up your immune system and protect against the insult that leads you down the path of type 1 diabetes,” Chervonsky said. Researchers hope to discover the bacterial products that stave off diabetes in order to help prevent the disease in humans.

    Burned at the stake due to cold?
    Could natural forces have contributed to the witchcraft trials of the 16th and 17th centuries? Emily Oster, Assistant Professor in Economics and the College, explored the question, which was detailed on the Web site slate.com. Oster found data that showed between 1520 and 1770, colder decades were linked with more witch trials. One of the sharpest drops in the so-called “little Ice Age” coincided with an uptick in witchcraft trials about 1560. It is believed the colder temperatures impacted food sources on land and sea, making people lash out. In her paper, “Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe,” Oster wrote: “In a time period when the reasons for changes in weather were largely a mystery, people would have searched for a scapegoat. … ‘Witches’ became a target for blame.&rdqui;

    Sports can boost language skills
    Simply watching a sport could help even a casual fan develop better language skills about sports. A study of ice hockey players, fans and non-fans showed that a region of the brain normally associated with planning and controlling movement were activated when players and fans listened to conversations about their sport. The findings were reported in the Tuesday, Sept. 2 Daily Telegraph. “We show that non-language-related activities, such as playing or watching a sport, enhance one’s ability to understand language about their sport precisely because brain areas normally used to act become highly involved in language understanding,” said Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in Psychology and the College, and lead author of the study, which studied Magnetic Resonance Imaging results of 12 hockey players, eight fans and nine individuals.

    Sex may not decline with age
    Sexual dysfunction is not an inevitable part of aging, according to a new study detailed in a Thursday, Sept. 4 USA Today article. About three in four American men aged 75 to 85 and half of women are still interested in sex, according to a survey by University sociologists. “It’s not age per se; that when you get to 80, it’s all over with,” said Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and the College. In a study of 3,000 men and women aged 57 to 85 who lived in their homes, two-thirds of men and nearly half the women reported being sexually active in the past year. Losing interest is attributed to physical and mental health factors, Laumann said. “If sexual health goes to hell, it may be a canary in the mine shaft. It may be a sign of health problems.” The study also was reported in U.S. News & World Report.