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.

Arts & Letters

A noted void in London will be filled this month: Britain's first museum of international twentieth-century art will open on May 12. Tate Modern, an offshoot of the Tate Gallery, will be one of the world's largest museums devoted to modern art. The Tate Gallery owned a collection of modern art that was widely acknowledged to be one of the most significant in the world; however, it lacked the space to exhibit more than a sixth of the collection at a time. Tate Modern will be able to show at least 60 percent, or 800 to 1,000 works, at once. The new museum is housed in a renovated power station on the south side of the Thames -- a building originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of the iconic red telephone booth. A new bridge provides access to Saint Paul's Cathedral, on the opposite bank. Some 2 million visitors to the museum are expected each year.

Expiring Patent

No. 4,384,369. Muscle-Stimulating Exercise Suit. "An exercise suit ... cover[ing] a majority of the externally accessible muscle groups of a wearer, [having] at least one pocket in registration with a particular muscle area ... each pocket [containing] liquid carrying bags providing a weight load to be borne by the wearer and a dynamically yieldable muscle stimulating force during body movement of the wearer."

100 Years Ago

H. D. Sedgwick Jr., writing in the May, 1900, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "There is nothing peculiar or mysterious about politics or international relations. When two or three men live within hail of one another political relations begin. Men meet, bow; each drives his wagon to the right; one sells, another buys; they fence their acres in. They put their heads and arms together to chop down a tree, to mend the road, to regulate county matters with the next community. Whether they like it or not, politics have begun, ethical relations have begun, religion has come in; ... they are threefold, yet one and indivisible. From that union springs the moral law.... the immediate matter for men is to understand that what is true of two men and three gathered together is true of tens of millions. Are men to recognize this law, which acts on the individual and on society, only when the company is small and they can see the whites of one another's eyes?"

Illustrations by Victoria Roberts.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; The Almanac - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 6; page 16.