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Science news digest - 18th October 2012

In the science news this week, an Austrian skydiver breaks the sound barrier in a record jump, oxytocin could help alcoholics combat withdrawal symptoms, and finally… sitting down is bad for your health.

Felix Baumgartner travels at the speed of sound

It sounds like something from a science fiction book, but an Austrian skydiver made history this week with a death-defying jump from a height of 128,100ft (24 miles; 39km).

Felix Baumgartner, who has made more than 2,500 jumps in his career, made the dive over New Mexico falling for nearly 10 minutes before safely reaching the ground.

The jump smashed the record for the highest ever freefall, and although still unconfirmed by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), it is believed he was also the first skydiver to go faster than the speed of sound, reaching a maximum velocity of 833.9mph (1,342km/h).

"Let me tell you - when I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble. You don't think about breaking records anymore, you don't think about gaining scientific data - the only thing that you want is to come back alive," he said afterwards at a media conference.

The BBC also reported that the dive has smashed the record for the number of concurrent live streams in Youtube’s history, with more than 8 million people watching the stunt live on their devices.

The jump wasn’t without its problems, however. Originally scheduled for Tuesday last week, high winds delayed the jump until the following Sunday. And just before the dive, Baumgartner reported that his helmet visor had steamed up because a heater had broken in his helmet. However, his team decided to go ahead with the jump once they established that nothing was seriously broken in the skydiver’s hi-tech suit.

During the jump, Baumgartner lost control of the dive, leaving the preferred delta position and began to tumble over and over. However, he managed to correct his form and continued the dive in the correct configuration.

The team that organised the dive, Red Bull Stratos, stressed the scientific importance of Baumgartner’s jump. The researchers say it has already provided useful data for the development of parachute systems that can perform at high-altitude, and the information will also be used to develop evacuation systems from spacecraft that pass through the stratosphere.

"Part of this programme was to show high-altitude egress, passing through Mach and a successful re-entry back [to subsonic speed], because our belief scientifically is that's going to benefit future private space programmes or high-altitude pilots; and Felix proved that today," said Art Thompson, the team principal.

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Oxytocin could help tackle alcohol addiction

A study at University of North Carolina may have identified an effective treatment to help recovering alcoholics deal with the vicious cravings experienced early on in detox, reported New Scientist.

The researchers gave 11 alcohol-dependent volunteers two daily doses of an oxytocin nasal spray, or a placebo, during the first three days of the detox programme. The volunteers also received lorazepam – a detox drug – when their withdrawal symptoms became too much.

The researchers found that the group who had been taking the oxytocin had fewer alcohol cravings and milder withdrawal symptoms, and used just one-fifth of the lorazepam used by the other group, with four volunteers not needing lorazepam at all.

Clearly the size of this study indicates that this is still in the early stages, but it is a promising step. Finding an alternative to lorazepam is a key objective, because it is so addictive, and has a number of side effects, including insomnia.

The researchers are still unclear how oxytocin aids withdrawal symptoms, but it has no side effects because it is a naturally occurring hormone.

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And finally…

Sitting for long periods is bad for your health

This may seem no great surprise, but a sedentary lifestyle is bad for your health, claims a new study from the Universities of Leicester and Loughborough. However, this is not the surprising bit. The researchers also claim that hitting the gym for 30 minutes each day won’t necessarily counteract the effects of spending the whole day at your desk.

The study analysed the findings of 18 existing studies involving almost 800,000 people. The research team claim that although exercising in the evening is better than doing no exercise at all, spending a long time sitting down still remains bad for you, reported the BBC.

Because each of the studies involved in the analysis used different measures, it is difficult to say what the limit is for when sitting down becomes a health hazard, however what is clear is that those that spent the most time sitting had a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and death compared to those that sat the least.

Dr Emma Wilmot from the Diabetes Group at the University of Leicester, who led the study, said: "If a worker sits at their desk all day then goes to the gym, while their colleague heads home to watch TV, then the gym-goer will have better health outcomes.

"But there is still a health risk because of the amount of sitting they do. Comparatively, the risk for a waiter who is on their feet all day is going to be a lot lower.

"People convince themselves they are living a healthy lifestyle, doing their 30 minutes of exercise a day. But they need to think about the other 23.5 hours."

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