The Almanac

Health & Safety

This month, according to a European Union regulation, European airlines must begin teaching crew members about low-level radiation -- which may increase the incidence of cancer and of birth defects -- and monitoring their in-flight exposure. Solar-storm activity, which produces radiation, is expected to hit a peak in the next year or so; at higher altitudes there is less atmosphere to serve as a shield. Airlines must reduce the flying time of highly exposed crew members and reassign pregnant women to nonflying duties. Opinion is divided on the need for such precautions. Researchers have found that flight crews are typically exposed to more radiation than nuclear-plant workers are. However, they have not established that the average exposure of a crew member carries any actual health risk. U.S. airlines do not monitor radiation exposure; some observers expect this to become a negotiating point between unions and airlines in the years ahead.

The Skies

The most significant astrological event of the month takes place on May 3 and 4, when the Sun, the Moon, and the brightest planets -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn -- line up along a narrow span of sky. Because the Sun falls in the center of the group, its glare will render all five planets invisible -- a phenomenon that last occurred 38 years ago. May 5: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks in the couple of hours before dawn. Shortly after sunset tonight the crescent Moon lies just above the red star Aldebaran, with Mars to the right and the Pleiades star cluster beyond that. 18: Full Moon, also known this month as the Milk or Planting Corn Moon.

Q & A

Although this question has defied being answered conclusively, one scientist has taken on a related problem: the accumulation of unmatched socks in a drawer over time. In the March-April, 1996, issue of Robert A.J. Matthews, an Oxford-based physicist and science correspondent, explained the process: When one sock is lost, an odd sock, of course, remains. Because pairs initially outnumber odd socks, the next sock to be lost will most likely come from a pair, and so on. Matthews, who has a penchant for probing life's irritations (he once posited a mathematical explanation for the tendency of a falling piece of toast to land buttered side down), devised an equation to describe the odd-sock phenomenon:

He concluded that the best solution, mathematically and practically speaking, is to "get rid of all your existing socks, choose two favourite designs -- and stick to them."


May 29: Memorial Day, the traditional start of the outdoor-grilling season. This year something new is available for barbecuing: meat that has been treated with ionizing radiation. Last February the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the use of radiation on all beef, lamb, veal, pork, and goat products; it has allowed the radiation of poultry since 1992 and of pork at very low levels since 1985. Radiation has been shown to reduce Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes organisms, and is the only known way to eliminate E. coli from raw meat. Although irradiated products have drawn opposition from some consumer groups, proponents point out that the doses used are far too low to make meat radioactive. Shoppers can easily identify irradiated meat: it must either contain the word "irradiated" in its product name or carry a label stating that it has been treated with radiation, and it must bear a symbol -- petals in a broken circle -- used to denote irradiation. The process does not significantly affect price.

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