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Why Are Cell Phones Banned On Flights?

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As most people know, cell phones are a big no-no during landing and takeoff. What most people don't know, however, is why.

The FAA says cell phones to be "radio transmitting devices" that could possibly disrupt the avionics of the plane. Interesting that they don't call pacemakers transmitting devices, though. In 2007, the ABC news show 20/20, along with veteran airline pilot John Nance, conducted research disputing the FAA's stand. Nance stated: "There's little reason to worry about cell phones interfering with an airplane's navigational equipment," and went on to say airliners electronic systems are "heavily shielded" against stray radio or electronic signals.

Opponents claim that while one or two devices may not break an avionic shield, a lot of them could interfere with communication between the pilot and ground control--communication that's especially critical during takeoff and landing. In the case of emergency, jammed communication with the tower could cause disaster.

So who's right?

Well, according to the MythBusters, it's generally safe to use a cell on a plane. They did some similar debunking. However, because there are so many different types of devices and ways the phones can malfunction, there's no way to test every single cell phone that's been made. 20/20 determined that the primary reason for the ban on cell phone is that neither the FAA or the FCC are willing to spend the money to perform conclusive safety tests. Mmmm, okay.

According to Wiki: "Virtually every pilot headset sold on the market today comes with a cell phone adapter so that the pilot can use his cell phone." While airlines claim that pilots never use their cell phones mid-flight, we're not completely convinced.

pilotphoneat_Other research indicates that AT&T suggested in-flight mobile phone restrictions should remain in place in the interest of reducing the nuisance to other passengers caused by in-flight cell phone conversations "“ again, not at all a safety issue.

Some skeptics have posited the idea that the cell phone ban exists to spur use of the airline's built-in phones, phones that charge a significant fee. There's also some research stating that mobile phones are not all that reliable in the air in the first place, since they're not designed to switch from cell tower to cell tower at the speed of an airplane.

Interestingly enough, the FAA gives the pilot of each aircraft the right to grant the use of cell phones mid-flight. So hey, maybe next time you should buy your pilot a cup of coffee at the terminal. Who knows, they might grant your cell phone an exception.

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Brain Training Could Help Combat Hearing Loss, Study Suggests
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Contrary to what you might think, the hearing loss that accompanies getting older isn't entirely about your ears. Studies have found that as people get older, the parts of their brain that process speech slow down, and it becomes especially difficult to isolate one voice in a noisy environment. New research suggests there may be a way to help older people hear better: brain training.

The Verge reports that a new double-blind study published in Current Biology suggests that a video game could help older people improve their hearing ability. Though the study was too small to be conclusive, the results are notable in the wake of several large studies in the past few years that found that the brain-training games on apps like Luminosity don't improve cognitive skills in the real world. Most research on brain training games has found that while you might get better at the game, you probably won't be able to translate that skill to your real life.

In the current study, the researchers recruited 24 older adults, all of whom were long-term hearing-aid users, for eight weeks of video game training. The average age was 70. Musical training has been associated with stronger audio perception, so half of the participants were asked to play a game that asked them to identify subtle changes in tones—like you would hear in a piece of music—in order to piece together a puzzle, and the other half played a placebo game designed to test their memory. In the former, as the levels got more difficult, the background noise got louder. The researchers compare the task to a violinist tuning out the rest of the orchestra in order to listen to just their own instrument.

After eight weeks of playing their respective games around three-and-a-half hours a week, the group that played the placebo memory game didn't perform any better on a speech perception test that asked participants to identify sentences or words amid competing voices. But those who played the tone-changing puzzle game saw significant improvement in their ability to process speech in noise conditions close to what you'd hear in an average restaurant. The tone puzzle group were able to accurately identify 25 percent more words against loud background noise than before their training.

The training was more successful for some participants than others, and since this is only one small study, it's possible that as this kind of research progresses, researchers might find a more effective game design for this purpose. But the study shows that in specific instances, brain training games can benefit users. This kind of game can't eliminate the need for hearing aids, but it can help improve speech recognition in situations where hearing aids often fail (e.g., when there is more than one voice speaking). However, once the participants stopped playing the game for a few months, their gains disappeared, indicating that it would have to be a regular practice.

[h/t The Verge]

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.


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