What created the universe in a millisecond?

Science, technology, and life.
March 17 2006 9:04 AM

Our Virgin Birth

What created the universe in a millisecond?

(For the latest Human Nature columns on abortion, morning-after pills, and athletic doping, click here.)

A NASA probe found evidence of how the universe began. From microwave residue, investigators conclude that 13.7 billion years ago, the universe "grew from sub-microscopic to astronomical size" in "much less than a trillionth of a second." The good news: This confirms "inflation" theory, which says the sudden growth was caused by inflation. The bad news: Scientists "still have no idea what caused inflation." Cynical view: We already have a theory of creation with no causal mechanism. It's called religion. (For Human Nature's take on creationism and unexplained causation, click here.)

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Bush and the Senate are gridlocked over morning-after pills. Some pro-lifers think the pills cause abortions because they can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Pro-choicers say the pills are more likely to prevent ovulation or fertilization, thereby heading off pregnancies that would lead to abortions. Bush's appointee at the Food and Drug Administration, overruling scientific staff and advisers, blocked over-the-counter sales of the pills. After promising to act on a new application, the FDA then reneged. Now Hillary Clinton and other senators are blocking confirmation of a new FDA commissioner until the pill fight is resolved. (For Human Nature's previous takes on morning-after pills, click here and here.)

A study of twins suggests anorexia is mostly genetic. Researchers compared the disorder's frequency in identical twins, who share all their genes, and fraternal twins, who share half their genes. They deduced that 56 percent of the "liability" for getting anorexia is genetic. Authorized conclusions: Since the disease isn't "a choice," parents can stop feeling guilty, patients can stop being scolded by doctors, and insurers will have to pay for treatment. Unauthorized conclusions: 1) Since it isn't a choice, existing treatments won't work. 2) Now you can stop feeling guilty about giving your daughter an anorexic upbringing and start feeling guilty about giving her anorexic genes.

Doctors asked to euthanize a conscious 18-month-old child against his parents' wishes. "The case was believed to be the first  in which doctors had asked to allow a patient who is not in a persistent vegetative state to die." The boy has severe spinal muscular atrophy, can't breathe on his own, requires a feeding tube, can hardly move his extremities, and is expected to die within a year. His parents opposed the request to turn off his ventilator, which would kill him immediately. Doctors' argument: His life is "intolerable." Parents' argument: He's not mentally incapacitated and can still enjoy being with his family. Judge's ruling: "He continues to see and hear and feel touch and to have awareness of … his family—and to have the normal thought process of a small child." So, the ventilator stays on. (For Human Nature's takes on the Terri Schiavo case, click here, here, and here.)

Evidence is growing that pregnancy is a fight for survival between woman and fetus. Examples: 1) The fetus makes its placenta send blood vessels into the woman to sap her nutrients. 2) To force more blood into the placenta, the fetus injects the woman with a protein that impairs her ability to fix her damaged blood vessels, thereby afflicting some women with pre-eclampsia (very high blood pressure). 3) In mice, the male transmits a gene to the fetus to make it grow larger in the womb, but the female transmits a gene to block this effect. 4) Pregnancy kills more than half a million women per year, which seems not to make evolutionary sense. Best available explanation: Natural selection designed fetuses to hog their mothers' resources, but designed women to thwart this so they'll have enough resources to produce other surviving offspring. (For Human Nature's latest takes on the woman-fetus conflict, click here and here.)

The new nighttime horror is "sleep-eating." Some people do it naturally, but researchers and lawsuits suggest that the spread of sleeping pills such as Ambien may have driven cases of sleep-related eating disorders into the thousands. Examples: 1) A woman woke up and found debris from candy bars and popsicles on her floor. 2) Another woman devoured a package of hamburger buns "like a grizzly bear." 3) A woman went to sleep "in a full body cast" and was later found by her son "frying bacon and eggs." Scientists are debating whether to blame the pills or a pre-existing subset of susceptible victims. (For Human Nature's update on people who drive while sleeping, click here.)

Using growth hormones to make short kids taller costs more than $50,000 per inch. A study says the average treatment takes five years, costs about $100,000, and boosts growth by less than two inches. Researchers' conclusion: Narrow this treatment to kids who will get the most benefit, or it's not worth the cost. Harsher conclusions: 1) It's a "lifestyle drug," since shortness isn't an illness. 2) Don't we have better things to spend health care money on, since it would cost $40 billion to give these hormones to every kid who qualifies under FDA rules? 3) Did we mention the daily injections? (For Human Nature's previous update on drugs for short kids, click here.)

Genetic theories of racial difference are making a comeback. Analyses of the human genome bolster theories of differential evolution among different groups: war lust in South American tribes, intelligence in Jews, digestive changes in East Asians and Europeans. The hot topic is changes in brain-related genes, prompting speculation that evolution has shaped personality differences between peoples (for example, making Westerners independent and Asians collective). Criticisms: 1) Brain, schmain. A lot of the changes are digestive. 2) The history of biological theories of national character is ugly, and the evidence is thin. Defenses: 1) This time the theories make more sense, because they're based on different environmental pressures. 2) This time we're looking for selection of superior genes across groups, and we're finding it.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Pro-choicers and  moral repression. 2) South Dakota's invitation to snuff your embryo. 3) Technology and the end of Roe. 4) The arrogance of the partial-birth abortion ban. 5) The nonsense of Olympic doping rules. 6) The temptation of remote-controlled killing. 7) Men, women, and the joy of punishment. 8) Teachers who have sex withboys. 9) Our creepy genetic experiment on dogs. 10) The mainstreaming of anal sex. (Click here to return to top of page.)

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