The Almanac


The Cruellest Month

April may indeed be the "cruellest month," at least with respect to suicide rates. Suicides peak not during the Christmas holidays or the winter as a whole, as one might expect, but during the spring, usually April. Speculation as to why focuses on both biological factors (depression and suicide have been associated with fluctuations in levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which may occur as hours of daylight increase) and behavioral factors (those experiencing depression may expect it to lift when spring arrives, and may become even more depressed when it doesn't). A geographic pattern to suicide is also evident: rates in the western mountain states are twice as high as the national average of 12 per 100,000 people. Isolation undoubtedly plays a role; in addition, these are among the states with the greatest proportions of new residents, a fact that bolsters a long-postulated link between mobility, which weakens a person's social supports, and suicide.


April 1: Abalone season begins today in northern California. Heading out into coastal waters will be not only divers, who pry the giant mollusks from underwater rocks, but also marine enforcement officers from the California Department of Fish and Game, which is stepping up efforts to curb poaching. Abalone, a high-priced delicacy whose taste is often compared to that of

Marine Enforcement Officer

calamari, is primarily sold to American restaurants or shipped to Asia. Because the populations of the mollusk are fragile, divers have long been limited to taking four a day. However, abalone's growing popularity has given rise to widespread poaching. By one estimate, nearly 5,000 abalone are taken illegally each day during prime diving conditions; they bring up to $40 a pound on the black market.

The Skies

April 1: Comet Hale-Bopp is at perihelion -- its closest approach to the Sun during its 4,000-year orbit. The comet will hang high above the western horizon an hour after sunset all month long; however, the waxing Moon will start to interfere with viewing by the end of the second week. 6: At 2:00 A.M. Daylight Saving Time begins. Set clocks an hour ahead. 22: Full Moon, also known this month as the Fish, Egg, and Sprouting Grass Moon.

[For daily information on the skies, visit the Skywatcher's Diary of Michigan State University's Abrams Planetarium.]

Arts & Letters

The Newseum

The Newseum -- the first museum in the United States devoted to the news industry -- opens this month in Arlington, Virginia. Funded by the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit organization, the museum will include multimedia presentations (for example, a block-long wall of news videos), interactive exhibits (visitors can create broadcasts or put their pictures on mock front pages), and displays of news-related artifacts (a Sumerian clay tablet, Charles Dickens's pen). An adjacent park contains items from various struggles for freedom -- for example, pieces of the Berlin Wall. Although some in the media are enthusiastic about a museum honoring their trade, others have been less sanguine, characterizing some exhibits as "gimmickry" and the museum as a whole as possible "self-aggrandizement" on the part of the Freedom Forum's chairman, Allen Neuharth (the founder of the newspaper USA Today), and questioning whether a museum celebrating the news industry will be able, when appropriate, to take it to task as well.

Health and Safety

Sleepy Driver

April 7: Drivers should take extra care today, because car accidents are, on average, 7 percent likelier on the Monday just after the start of Daylight Saving Time -- when most people lose an hour of sleep as the result of turning clocks ahead -- than on the preceding and subsequent Mondays. (Accidental deaths of all sorts rise, typically by 6 percent, for several days after the time change.) This phenomenon, documented last year by a researcher at the University of British Columbia, has been attributed to an increase in "microsleeps," or lapses of attention, during daily activities. Correspondingly, the number of car accidents falls by 7 percent on the Monday in October following the end of Daylight Saving Time, when clocks are turned back.



April 29: The Chemical Weapons Convention takes effect in countries where it has been ratified. The treaty obliges those countries to eliminate all chemical weapons and weapons facilities within 10 years; it is the first treaty ever to eliminate an entire class of weapons. The treaty contains some of the most stringent verification measures ever included in an arms-control agreement -- notably, it allows spot inspections not only of declared chemical-weapons facilities but also of any industrial facility capable of producing weapons. As of this writing, the treaty has not yet been ratified by the two countries with the largest chemical-weapons stockpiles -- Russia and the United States. U.S. ratification was derailed last fall by Senate Republicans, concerned that states such as Iran and Syria are not signatories and that the liberal inspection policy could lead to industrial espionage.

25 Years Ago

L. E. Sissman, writing in the April, 1972, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "A creative problem-solving team on the verge of an answer is a stimulating thing to behold and be part of.

Problem-solving Team

Each member subjectively makes a contribution. Every other member instantly reacts to this suggestion, but if the group's working right, not in a selfish or egocentric way .... Like ants or a bucket brigade or, at the highest level, an ensemble of actors, the group bands together to find the one most logical and productive answer. At moments like this -- moments of breakthrough -- every member of the group feels a pride in the emerging solution and an exhilaration that can be described only as being off the ground. The group, severally and together, has stood on a frontier, however modest, of human skill or execution, and has raised, so to speak, the flag at Iwo Jima."

Illustrations by Melinda Beck

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; The April Almanac; Volume 279, No. 4; page 18.