Smart Kids, Not So Smart Adults, and DNA for Dinner

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, "School-age children from Spanish-speaking households in San Diego County and throughout California are gaining English fluency at record rates". While this is excellent news, the news for adults is a little dimmer.

Meanwhile, English fluency among adult Spanish speakers dropped from 50 percent in 1990 and 2000 to 48 percent in 2005. The census reports a more precipitous decline for those 65 and older. The fluency rate for this group dropped from 45 percent in 1990 to 35 percent in 2005.

Actually, in a way, this means those adult Spanish speakers are adapting well to American culture. After all, American adults don't know much, and don't seem troubled by that. A new poll by Zogby International backs this up: "Three-quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White's seven dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court justices, according to a poll on pop culture."

That result will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed these polls over the years-- or listened to the callers on talk radio. And of course, it's not just in the dwarf/justice nexus that adults fail to shine. Turns out, they don't know much about non-comic book science, either.

Asked what planet Superman was from, 60% named the fictional planet Krypton, while only 37% knew that Mercury is the planet closest to the sun.

Unfortunately, those kids who are doing so well learning English-- and all their classmates-- may not be getting the sort of science education that will help them distinguish between Krypton and Mercury. A story in this morning's Riverside Press-Enterprise explains that:

Science is getting short shrift in many California classrooms.

Elementary schools have been spending more time on math and reading lessons to prepare students for standardized tests, leaving less time for other subjects.

That might be starting to change because children must learn about topics such as magnetism and molecules for new state science tests.

But science still is not getting enough attention, particularly in the early grades, some teachers and experts say.

Results of the fifth-grade test, the first of the state's new science tests, are not encouraging.

Science has been left behind, the story explains, because of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. Schools are now focused on their students doing well on the act's mandated tests, for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks-- that's where the money is.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act includes punishments for schools that lag in English and math, but doesn't look at science in determining whether schools are up to par.

So to keep the federal dollars flowing, science has had to take a backseat, even while everyone gives lip service to its importance.

And a story in The Sacramento Bee shows that whether or not you give lip service to science, the cutting edge of science may be finding its way to your lips anyway.

The U.S. wine industry has entered the world of genetic engineering as some vintners experiment with a strain of yeast designed to eliminate chemicals in red wine that are believed to trigger headaches, including migraines, in some people.

Scientific research, much of it conducted at the University of California, Davis, has long played an important role in improving the quality of grapes and wines produced in California and around the world. But genetic modification -- in this case inserting two genes into the DNA of a yeast species -- marks a new threshold for the industry.

An impressive breakthrough, no doubt, but not one the wine world seems interested in embracing so far.

Outside the United States, only Moldova, in Eastern Europe, allows its winemakers to use the new yeast.

(I can't speak to the quality of Moldovan wines, but I can't tell you that if you are ever offered a Romanian Cabernet Sauvignon, you should politely decline.)

Actually, the high tech grapes won't even be welcome in all of California: "The growing of genetically modified crops has been banned by voters or county supervisors in Mendocino, Trinity, Marin and Santa Cruz counties."

Moving down the food chain from wine, we learn that some foodstuffs may not be waiting for help from scientists or approval from voters to start genetic modifications. A story on reveals that a new study concludes hot dogs "may contain DNA-mutating compounds that might boost one's risk for cancer."

Extracts from hot dogs bought from the supermarket, when mixed with nitrites, resulted in what appeared to be these DNA-mutating compounds. When added to Salmonella bacteria, hot dog extracts treated with nitrites doubled to quadrupled their normal DNA mutation levels. Triggering DNA mutations in the gut might boost the risk for colon cancer, the researchers explained.

Of course, this study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemisty, is just a preliminary study-- and all hot dogs are not created equal ("Scientists note there is an up to 240-fold variation in levels of these chemicals across different brands.")-- so the lead researchers tells, "I wouldn't say you shouldn't eat hot dogs."  I would, however, be surprised if he was still eating them.

(I suppose, given the results of that Zogby poll, I should stress that these alleged hot dog-induced DNA mutations will not give you superpowers, no matter how much genetically modified wine you drink with your franks.)


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