Unhealthy Eating, Allergies, & More—This Week in the News


In a fast-moving, ever-shifting world, news is continuously breaking. The Great Courses is here to help you understand the full story behind the soundbites. Here are a handful of stories for the week of April 1, 2019, and their accompanying lectures on The Great Courses Plus.

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Rare Gene Mutation Causes Woman to Feel No Pain
New research is shedding light on the genetic reasons why a 71-year-old Scottish woman experienced no pain when her hip was replaced, after wrist surgery, or giving birth to her children. Scientists say it’s caused by a mutation in a previously unidentified gene that means she simply doesn’t feel what the rest of us call pain. But, pain is more than just a nuisance—it’s extremely important to your well-being. Get an overview of the systems of pain perception; the ways your brain processes pain formation; how seeing pain in others can quite literally cause you to feel pain yourself; and what happens when the pain system breaks down.

The Changing Concept of Personal Space
What accounts for an appropriate amount of “personal space” can be subjective, but the accepted standard also seems to be shifting as headlines about inappropriate touching continue to dominate the news. We seem to carry invisible, portable space bubbles with us and are categorized into three personal territorial zones. Reflect on how we often don’t realize we have these zones until they are violated—when we respond with stress reactions.

The Dangers of a Bad Diet Surpass Smoking
New research has shed light on the fact that a poor diet is the leading risk factor for deaths from lifestyle-related diseases in the majority of the world, causing 11 million deaths per year. According to the World Health Organization, most of the world’s population now lives in countries where obesity kills more people than malnutrition. Explore the two-pronged pathway to global obesity: decreased physical activity and radical changes in diet (including the massive consumption of sugar).

U.S. Bridges Are Becoming Dangerous
The recently released annual report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association states that 47,052 of the nation’s 616,087 bridges–7.6 percent–are “structurally deficient and in poor condition.” Adding to this grim news, the report also noted that the pace of bridge improvements is at its slowest point in five years and it will take more than 80 years to replace or repair them all. Learn what it takes to build a bridge and what leads to bridge failure.

Priest Apologizes for Burning Harry Potter Titles
A priest in northern Poland who led a public burning of books that included titles from the Harry Potter series, as well as objects thought to be connected to magic and the occult, has apologized saying the ritual was not intended to condemn specific authors, religions, or social groups. Examine how religious violence is almost always justified by portraying its targets as something other than human, or as malevolent, allowing religions to process and create fear through scapegoats, demons and monsters, false gods, and Antichrist figures.

Welcome to Spring, the Season of Allergies
Gesundheit! Welcome spring, known to millions as allergy and asthma season. This is the season when trees and grasses release billions of buoyant pollen granules into the air, using the wind to disburse across the countryside. Follow the microscopic chain of events that lead to allergies and asthma. Peanuts, pollen, bee stings, cat hair—all can cause an overreaction in the immune system, but for different reasons and with results that range from discomfort to death.

NASA Pays People to Stay in Bed
It might not be as tempting as it sounds, but NASA is paying 24 people $19K each to stay in bed for 60 days. This effort is an attempt to study how the body responds to zero gravity on long missions in space and to hopefully produce effective countermeasures against bone and muscle atrophy. Investigate the physics of space flight, from orbits to the misnamed state called “zero gravity.” 

“Domestic” Vehicle May Not Be Made in America
According to the Center for Automotive Research and the International Trade Association, 43 percent of cars built in Canada and Mexico are sold as domestic vehicles by the “Detroit Three” brands. Automobile manufacturing was one of the foundations of the American Industrial Revolution. See how mechanized transportation not only changed the world for consumers, but also transformed the business of factory labor.

Do Wind Turbines Cause Cancer?
While wind makes up less than 7 percent of the power generated in the United States, the development of this renewable energy source has come under scrutiny. Critics have linked wind turbine operations to electromagnetic fields (EMF), shadow flicker, audible noise, low-frequency noise, and infrasound. They additionally have linked them to health annoyances that could disrupt sleep, induce headaches, or even cause mild nausea—with some critics going as far as to link wind turbines to cancer. There’s no evidence to suggest cancer and wind farms are linked. Familiarize yourself with the types of experiments scientists conduct to determine if something causes cancer, and consider whether a range of natural and manmade substances with carcinogenic properties have the potential to cause cancer in humans.

The NCAA Tournament Finishes Up
Whether you follow college basketball or not, there’s no denying it has quite an impact. Every year, millions of people engage in a hugely popular data exercise called March Madness. See how a mathematical approach called bracketology helps you excel at picking winners in the playoff games of the NCAA basketball tournament.

We will be diligently monitoring current events and sharing updates on a regular basis, linking the latest headlines to our courses, so you can get the context, history, background, deeper meaning, and—especially—the facts. Our goal is to help our lifelong learners apply the knowledge they gain from our courses to the real world and become better-informed citizen about the present-day issues that concern us all.