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Obesity, Bioterrorism, Space Travel
Top News at AAAS Annual Meeting
Obesity, weather, interstellar travel, bioterrorism and the declining numbers of our favorite "table fish" were among the topics that most interested the hundreds of journalists who covered the 2002 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston (14-19 February).
Every year, the annual meeting draws about 1,000 science writers from as far away as Sydney, Australia and Sao Paulo, Brazil to write about the work of researchers on the cutting edge of science.
In 2002, US journalists were most likely to have written about an emerging worldwide epidemic of obesity, thought to be caused by changes in diet and lifestyle. Journalists wrote that researchers were finding that a growing number of overweight people live in countries where a substantial percentage of the population is malnourished -- "one a problem of the very poor; the other of a growing middle class," reported Daniel Q. Haney, of the Associated Press.
Researchers who study El Niño also caught the writers' interest, making the natural phenomenon the second most popular topic in news coverage of the annual meeting. Citing meteorologist Stephen Zebiak, Boston Herald writer Marie Szaniszlo said that scientists may have identified an El Niño weather pattern in the eastern Pacific, "similar to the one that caused widespread havoc four years ago..."
Edie Lau, with The Bee in Sacramento, CA, covered a presentation about space travel, which also attracted a lot of attention. She described a voyage, envisioned by scientists, that might send a group of astronauts to another solar system. “So long is the distance that the trip could easily last for centuries,” Lau wrote, “so some generations will never know the destination, only the route.”
A press conference featuring experts on bioterrorism drew more journalists than any other, and led Mike Toner, of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to write that terrorists might use unlikely agents as biological weapons. Because fear and panic were in themselves the goal of terrorists, Toner wrote, “effective terrorism, could be waged with hundreds of agents that were once considered unlikely weapons of war.”
Reporters were interested also in the impact of "overfishing" on North Atlantic fish. The Boston Globe's Beth Daley wrote of the threat to "New England's fabled cod and haddock." She cited researchers who warned that commercial fishermen were decimating stocks of the fish people most like to eat. "The North Atlantic has about one-sixth the number of fish it had in 1900," Daley reported. "Fishermen are also chasing species ever lower on the food chain as bigger fish are depleted."
Like American science writers, journalists from non-US countries were drawn to stories about interstellar travel, obesity and chocolate, which shows promise as an anti-blood clotting agent. But the international press wrote also about topics that were not among the top 10 stories covered in the United States: New research on prevention of dental cavities; the science underlying complementary and alternative medicine; research on avian intelligence; and the role of sleep in memory.
The “Science Correspondent” for London’s Daily Mail described the sleep research of Matthew Wilson of MIT, who showed that rats dreamt of running around a track they had been trained on while awake. “The findings are the first proof of what pet owners often suspect -- that when dogs and cats are asleep, they dream about events of the day such as being taken for a walk or eating,” wrote the Daily Mail’s correspondent.