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UPI NewsTrack Health and Science News

Nov. 7, 2003 at 5:14 PM   |   Comments

Chilean desert resembles Mars

SANTIAGO, Chile, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Scientists say soil in one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world is a close match to the rocky red soil of Mars.

The discovery of Martian-like soil in Chile's Atacama Desert could shed light on the landings of the Viking spacecraft on Mars in the 1970s, the BBC reported Friday. The finding could explain why tests conducted by the Mars Viking missions raised false hopes in the search for life on another planet.

The Viking experiments failed to find carbon -- the basic building block of life -- and it was concluded Mars was a dead planet. Some observers still maintain the experiments should be repeated and until there's a return to Mars, those tests are being carried out in the Atacama.

Dr. Richard Quinn of the internatinal research team says the possibility remains that organic matter was there all the time. The Atacama soil may provide a valuable testing ground for the next voyage.


Researchers probe climate change mystery

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Ice samples from the peaks of tropical mountains might help researchers solve an ancient climate mystery that could have changed human history.

Researchers from Ohio State University are examining cores from glaciers atop peaks in the Peruvian Andes -- as well as preserved plants retrieved from the ice -- to help determine whether a sudden, worldwide drop in temperatures changed daily life for the inhabitants of South America, Europe and Asia.

"Something happened 5,200 years ago that was abrupt and very large-scale," explained Lonnie Thompson, OSU professor of geological sciences.

During a core-drilling expedition in 2002, Thompson's team found a wetland plant that had been remarkably well-preserved under the ice. DNA from the plant was tested and dated back 5,200 years.

"This is a soft-bodied plant," he said. "It had to be captured by a very large snowfall at the time, a snowfall and climate change that began very abruptly -- fast enough to capture a plant but not kill it. That is astounding."

The "Ice Man," a preserved Neolithic hunter exposed by a retreating glacier in the European Alps, also was trapped by the ice around 5,200 years ago, "and that had to occur very abruptly," Thompson said.

Earlier work by the Ohio State team on cores taken from Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro ice fields suggested a catastrophic drought had devastated Africa's tropical region more than 5,000 years ago, when many anthropologists think people abandoned nomadic lifestyles to form cities and social structures.

"If it happened in the past, it might happen again," Thompson warned, "and that type of abrupt event in today's world would mean worldwide chaos, both economically and socially."

About 70 percent of the world's 6.4 billion people live in the tropics.


Pot smoking doesn't clearly aid MS patient

LONDON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- A British study of more than 600 patients indicates marijuana smoking may not help MS patients gain mobility but certainly helps them feel better.

The analysis, funded by the U.K. Medical Research Council and published in the medical journal Lancet, was set up five years ago to either prove or disprove claims by those suffering from multiple sclerosis that smoking cannabis relieved painful spasms and stiffness of the muscles, which make moving very difficult, as well as tremor and bladder problems.

Researchers found that when spasticity was assessed clinically using a well-established measure known as the Ashworth scale1 there was no overall detectable change in spasticity in the patients.

Chris Jones, chief executive of the MS Trust, said it was "frustrating" that there was no clear physical proof that cannabinoids helped relieve spasticity.

But "overall, we believe that this study, combined with others which demonstrate symptomatic improvement, provides convincing evidence that cannabis may be clinically useful," he said.


Lunar eclipse due Saturday

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- The full moon will sail through Earth's shadow late Saturday, creating for a brief time an event called a lunar eclipse.

Skywatchers on every continent except Australia will be able to see the phenomenon, which like a solar eclipse is caused by Earth's shadow blocking sunlight from reaching a portion of the moon's surface.

A lunar eclipse is different from its solar counterpart, however, because observers do not need to wear protective glasses to view it safely.

This eclipse, the second of 2003, will be lighter than the first one, astronomers say. The moon will remain relatively bright, and there will be a pleasing color gradient across its face, going from pale white on one side to crimson red on the other.

For places and times to view the eclipse, go to NASA's Eclipse Home page: sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/eclipse.html.

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