Magnetic Pottery, and the Effects of Same-Sex Marriage Laws on Teens

7:48 minutes

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The rate of suicide attempts among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths is four times higher compared to straight youths. Reporting in JAMA, researchers examined how legalization of same-sex marriage in different states affected the rate of attempted suicide among teenagers. The group found that the rate dropped by 14 percent among LGB teens in states where same-sex marriage legislation was passed. Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor for Ars Technica, brings us this story and other science headlines from the week.

Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later in the program, how artificial intelligence is giving us amazing technical capabilities, but also new hacking vulnerabilities. We’ll look at cybersecurity in a connected world. But first, same-sex marriage was legalized by a federal law in July of 2015. Before that, certain individual states passed their own legislation laws. Hundreds of thousands of couples have been married since that time. Another demographic was also affected though: gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. That’s according to a new study out this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Annelee Newitz is here to tell us about those findings and other selected short subjects in science. She’s the tech culture editor for Ars Technica. Welcome back.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us, what did these researchers look at in this study?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So the researchers were actually initially interested in a public health question around why so many teenagers are vulnerable to suicide. And suicide is actually the second leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24, and it’s a public health problem. And one of the things that has been found, repeatedly, in a number of studies, is that sexual minority teenagers, gay, lesbian, transgender, non-binary teenagers, are more vulnerable than the general population, and they tend to express suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide at a rate that’s four times higher than the general population.

And so what these researchers wanted to do was see if laws around gay, lesbian rights affected the suicide rates, or whether there was any kind of connection between the two. And so what they did was that they had this fantastic data set that had been gathered by the Centers for Disease Control that do an annual survey to see whether teenagers are at risk of a number of different things. But one question that they ask is whether the teenager has contemplated or attempted suicide in the past year. So they could break this data out state-by-state and see how the data were changing as the laws were changing at a state level. And so they looked at it from between 1999 and 2015, when the federal law changed.

And what they found was really extraordinary, which is that as states changed their laws around gay marriage and made gay marriage legal, attempted suicide rates, dropped in the general teenage population by 7%. And among sexual minority teenagers, it dropped by 14%. And so it was really– again, we can’t say that there’s a perfect cause between the two things. You can’t pass a law and then suddenly public health improves miraculously. But it’s an incredible correlation, and it shows that changing the laws really can make things better in a public health sense, and can really improve health outcomes for young people.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. There are laws now being passed about transgender students in bathrooms, so maybe the same effect might be happening there.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I think that that’s a really excellent point. I think this study provides a really good example of how having laws that make it acceptable, publicly acceptable, to be a sexual minority and to have sexual diversity, as I said, can really improve health outcomes for a group that’s super, super vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. And so anyone who has kids or works with kids or cares about the next generation, this is a really important study to think about.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s certainly worth studying further, right? We’ll see what happens as the laws change. Your next story is about detecting changes in the Earth’s magnetic field through clay pots. I know you like archaeology, so this must be close to your heart.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It is, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about it.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, this is a story about what happens when two scientific fields get together and learn something new. And this is a field called archaeomagnetism, and it’s basically the sweet spot between archeology and the study of Earth’s magnetic field. And so what happened was this group of archaeologists had a fantastic record of the history of clay pots, dating from about the eighth century BC up through the second century BC.

And this was in Judah, the kingdom of Judah, which was a very bustling urban area. Lots of cities and commerce, and it’s in the area that now is outside of Jerusalem today. And the people there had excellent recordkeeping. They had a great calendar. And the people who were making clay pots, whenever they forged a new pot, they would put a stamp on the handle. And the stamp was a representation of the current royal family that was in power. And because of the fact that there were such good records kept of who was in power and when, archaeologists have a treasure trove of what are basically timestamps. They can look at these pots and say, yeah, we know from within 10 to 20 years when this was made.

So they know the date in historical time, but there’s another weird thing that happens when you fire a clay pot, which is that you bring it up to such a high temperature that it reaches what’s called the Curie point, which is named after Pierre Curie, our friend. And he found that when you heat up certain metals to a certain temperature– it’s different temperatures for different metals– they lose their magnetism. And as they cool down again, they re-orient to whatever magnetic field is in the area, which is, in this case with these clay pots, it’s Earth’s magnetic field. So there’s little tiny pieces of metal in the clay that are re-oriented to basically the exact shape of the magnetic field at that time.

And you can look at the orientation of the particles and see what the polarity is of the magnetic field. You can see how intense the magnetic field was. And so it gives you a kind of record of what the magnetic field was doing.

IRA FLATOW: It shifts over time. Poles wander, and there was even times when the poles have reversed themselves. It’s very interesting.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It is super interesting. And so now we know not just deep time stuff about how the poles swapped positions millions of years ago, but also, they found that in the eighth century there was a huge spike in the intensity of the magnetic field just in a local area around where these pots were made. And then the magnetic field lowered in intensity. So there was a big fluctuation, very dramatic, and it’s the kind of thing which you wouldn’t notice if you lived in an ancient society that was in the Iron Age. But today if something like that happened, especially when the magnetic field lowered, it would probably cause satellites to malfunction. It might overload the electrical grid, because when the magnetic field is at a lower intensity, more highly-charged particles from space and from the sun can zoom into the atmosphere and affect our electronics.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, fascinating. Thank you for taking time to be with us today, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thanks a lot.

IRA FLATOW: Annalee Newetz, tech culture editor at Ars Technica, talking to us from San Francisco.

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