Discoveries

DISCOVERIES

September 16, 2005

FAR, FAR AWAY, A BIG EXPLOSION

Scientists have detected what they say is the most distant explosion ever seen in the universe: a gamma ray burst almost 13 billion light years away.

The distance breaks the previous record by 500 million light years.

"This is uncharted territory," said Daniel Reichart, an astronomer at the University of North Carolina, who determined the distance with help from other astronomers. "We are finally starting to see the remnants of some of the oldest objects in the universe."

The gamma ray burst is known as GRB 050904, a designation based on the date of discovery - Sept. 4.

Reichart detected the explosion with the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research in Chile after being alerted by NASA's Swift satellite, a probe launched last year to pinpoint such cosmic events.

By studying gamma ray bursts, astronomers hope to learn when and where the stars and planets formed after the birth of the universe 13.7 billion years ago. Light from the bursts may also contain valuable information about the material it passes through as it travels across the universe to reach us.

"This opens the door to the use of gamma ray bursts as unique and powerful probes of the early universe," said Donald Lamb, a University of Chicago astronomer.

Lamb and Reichart predicted five years ago that such distant gamma ray bursts would eventually be detected. Many scientists dismissed their theory, arguing that the massive stars necessary to produce gamma ray bursts could never be so old or so distant.

Gamma ray bursts are intense flares of radiation given off when massive stars die and form black holes. Considered the most powerful explosions since the Big Bang, they can last from a fraction of a second to several minutes. They were discovered in the 1960s by U.S. satellites launched to check on international compliance with the nuclear test ban treaties.

Gamma ray bursts occur almost every day, but even their afterglows have been difficult to study because they go off like camera flashes in a dark room - firing off in random directions in the sky.

U.S., British and Italian scientists launched the Swift last November to alert astronomers to gamma ray bursts via e-mail, Web sites and text messages so they can quickly train their telescopes on an afterglow.

About 900 astronomers are connected to the Swift's network, and they believe it will help them discover even more distant bursts. "Now the fun begins," Lamb said.

- Dennis O'Brien

Did you know ...

E. coli - short for Escherichia coli - is a germ that causes severe cramps and diarrhea. Eating undercooked ground beef or drinking contaminated water or unpasteurized milk greatly increases risk of E. coli infection.

- American Academy of Family Physicians

Setting up a home gym

Quick Takes

A Beverly Hills exercise physiologist has seen the mistakes hundreds of times: Someone plunks down thousands of dollars for high-tech home exercise equipment that ends up in a corner as a coat rack.

So Jim O'Connor has taken matters into his own hands. He has written a $37 e-book, Home Gym Shopping Secrets (Homegymshoppingsecrets.com), and started a Web site, www.wellnessword.com, to educate consumers about gym equipment.

Tip: You don't need fancy equipment. For about $100, you can buy your own "gym in a bag," O'Connor says, that includes such items as a stretching mat, dumbbells, resistance bands and a medicine ball.

Bottom Line: People can achieve as much with basic equipment as they can with a $30,000 home gym, O'Connor says. - Mary Beth Regan

In Brief

ADHD drugs for adults increase

Use of prescription drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is growing at a faster rate among adults than children, according to new research estimating that 1.5 million Americans over 20 use the medicines.

Between 2000 and 2004, use of drugs that help keep ADHD patients focused doubled among adults age 20 to 44, but rose only 56 percent among children, according to data compiled by Medco Health Solutions, one of the country's largest prescription benefit managers. Meanwhile, spending on the medicines quadrupled.

Experts say reasons for the surge range from better drugs and advertising to parents of children newly diagnosed with ADHD realizing they have the same symptoms. The figures dispel earlier beliefs that children "grow out of the disorder," said Dr. Patricia Quinn, a developmental pediatrician at the National Center for Gender Issues and ADHD.

Heart-attack strategy

In a study colliding with established practice, recovery from small heart attacks went just as well when doctors gave drugs time to work as when they favored quick vessel-clearing procedures.

The Dutch finding raises questions over how to handle the estimated 1.5 million Americans who each year have small heart attacks - the most common kind. Most previous studies support the aggressive approach, but the wait-and-see approach is usually cheaper.

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