Today's Threat Level: Yellow, With a Chance of Phlegm

Miller-McCune magazine highlights current research that merits a raised eyebrow or a painful grin.
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Miller-McCune magazine highlights current research that merits a raised eyebrow or a painful grin.

Mark Nicas works at the Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment at the University of California, Berkeley, a position funded in part by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. Or to put it another way: The Department of Homeland Security pays Nicas to study spittle.

But rest assured: The terrorists haven't gotten their hands on a Loogie of Mass Destruction. Here's how Dr. Matthew Clark, director of the DHS grant program, explained it in a press release: "In terms of homeland security, knowing how germs are spread is an important factor in countermeasures for potential biological attacks or pandemics."


Right. So Nicas used a DHS grant to test his airborne dispersion model for large and small particles, in an effort to determine how, exactly, someone else's spit ends up on your sleeve. His mathematical models — and thank God they're merely mathematical — take into account the size of the particles, whether they're expelled in a dry cough or wet sneeze, their evaporation rate and air speed. And lest you think this is merely an academic exercise, consider Nicas' real-world advice: "When you get on an airplane, it's always best to sit at least three rows from a coughing person. You don't know what they have." (The three-row rule, it seems, is widely accepted among infection control experts; the large particles that carry most pathogens dissipate beyond that range.)

So has all that studying of spittle turned Nicas into an obsessive-compulsive? "I try not to shake hands with people who have a cold," he admits. "I tell my son to wash his hands. But I don't Lysol my counter every 10 minutes."

See, America? The terrorists haven't won, yet.

You Know, We'd Probably Have a Hard Time Falling Asleep, Too
The International Journal of Law and Psychiatry paper "Prison Life: television, sports, work, stress and insomnia in a remand prison," by the University of Geneva's Bernice S. Elger, comes to this startling conclusion: "Activities in prison and stressful events were significant factors associated with the variable 'insomnia versus no insomnia.'"

Who'da thunk it?

An Eternal Argument, Settled at Last
Lori Kendall, a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided to tackle the thorny question once and for all: Just what, exactly, is the difference between a nerd and a geek?

According to Kendell's research, even in the age of personal computers in every home, nerds still suffer from a negative cultural and media stereotype: namely, the antisocial, not-exactly-fashion-conscious white male. This might partly explain why women and minorities are shying away from careers in information technology, Kendall says, and could also reflect a societal uneasiness with the increasing control of technology over our lives.

OK, OK. Now for the nitty-gritty: Is it better to be a nerd or a geek?

"The valence of the word 'geek' has really changed over the years," Kendall says. "People talk about 'geeking out,' which indicates a very intense focus on an interest, and sometimes it's an interest that not a lot of people share. It tends to indicate expertise and passion about something. ... 'Nerd' is a stickier term that is applied to people in a more negative way. 'Geek' is something you can do and then leave behind, but 'nerd' is what you are."

Sigh. Don't we know it!

And Finally, From the 'Maybe It's Time to Take a Day Off From the Lab' Files ...
Microbiologist Stephen Beverley, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health, describes his study of the parasite Leishmania, responsible for the deadly condition in humans known as black fever and extremely difficult to grow in the lab: "If we can find a way to make the parasites that are in flagrante delicto light up, that might give us some clues as to what songs we have to sing to them to get them to mate in a culture dish." Here's hoping the parasites aren't Neil Diamond fans, doc ...

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