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Murder, birth and test scores: What scientists are learning about extreme heat

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Murder, birth and test scores: What scientists are learning about extreme heat

Heat waves have been linked to a higher risk of babies being born premature, as well as stillbirth. In California, researchers found that babies were more likely to be born before reaching full term if their mothers weathered an “extreme heat episode” in their last week of gestation.

“Heat acts like a trigger for preterm births,” said Tarik Benmarhnia, an environmental epidemiologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Benmarhnia said scientists have suggested several possible mechanisms behind that result, including the effects of extreme heat on blood flow in the placenta, inflammatory response and dehydration.

Extreme heat has also been linked to a higher risk of pregnant patients suffering conditions such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, researchers have found.

And after a baby is born, Strehlow said, “it’s not clear if extreme heat decreases actual breast milk production or if just dehydration” is causing that result, he said, but it’s clear that when women face extreme heat and struggle to access cooling measures, they report that “breastfeeding suffers.”

A florist on Forest Lawn Drive takes a break in a sliver of shade.

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(Zoe Cranfill / Los Angeles Times)

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Test Your Focus: Can You Spend 10 Minutes With One Painting?

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Test Your Focus: Can You Spend 10 Minutes With One Painting?

You made it , longer than about percent of readers so far.

The Painting

As you may recall, the painting you just spent time with is “Nocturne in Blue and Silver,” by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. (You may be familiar with one of Whistler’s more famous paintings — a portrait of his mother.)

The one you just spent time with currently hangs on the second floor of the Harvard Art Museums:

Lauren O’Neil for The New York Times

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The painting, part of a series that Whistler started in the late 1860s, shows the industrial banks of the River Thames in London in hazy blue tones.

In an 1885 lecture on the interaction between nature and the artist, Whistler spoke of the transition from day to night, “when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night.”

That mark we just saw is Whistler’s “signature,” and we see a version of it in many of his paintings. It is derived from the form of a butterfly; he iterated on the symbol throughout his life.

And the second reflection? Well, this is where things get fun. You may crave a definitive answer, but the painting itself doesn’t really provide one.

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Kate Smith, a senior conservator of paintings and head of the paintings lab at the Harvard Art Museums, has looked at infrared photographs of the painting. She has a theory of her own.

She believes Whistler may have started the painting one way and then simply changed his mind, flipped the panel upside down and started over.

Ms. Smith explained that this mystery reflection could be what’s called a pentimento — a change to a piece of art that slowly emerges over time. It’s possible that when this painting was finished, this reflection wasn’t there — by design. It may have emerged only decades later.

Or Whistler may have intentionally left the ghostly reflection in for us to see. He described the paintings in this series as arrangements of “line, form and color first.” Once, he was asked to confirm if figures in another painting were people. He wouldn’t say one way or another.

“They are just what you like,” he said.

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(If you want, look again now that you know more.)

The Point

This painting was well suited as a subject of our experiment: It has mysteries revealed upon close inspection. But the point of the exercise was not exactly for you to notice the mysteries. It was just to get you to notice at all.

The act of focusing is both possible and valuable, researchers say, no matter how intimidating or pointless it might seem. That’s particularly important in a world where typical office workers spend an average of less than a minute at a time on any one screen, according to research by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Attention Span.”

When you’re used to a manic social media feed, “it’s hard to pay attention to content that doesn’t change,” she said.

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Think again about the time you spent looking at the painting.

At first, you may have felt that it was too dull to hold your interest for even 10 seconds, much less 10 minutes.

When Professor Roberts at Harvard first conceived of this assignment — the three-hour version — she saw it as a launching point to help students write an art history research paper. But these days she also sees it as a way to teach patience. (She recommended this Whistler painting for our exercise.)

Many of her students, she says, react to the assignment with “horror.” (This may have happened to you, too.)

“It’s a combination of, ‘Oh, my God, that’s impossible,’” she said. “And also at the same time, the sense that it’s remedial.”

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But they usually find the experience, as you may have, neither too difficult nor too simple. The students see that they did not notice everything worth seeing in the painting at first glance, she said. And they find that by being a little bored, and a little outside their comfort zone, they can see something new.

If you liked the way you felt, try the exercise again with any piece of art. Or, if you’re feeling bolder, print out Professor Roberts’s original assignment. Then go to a museum, pick a work of art and settle in.

Consider also a song, or a poem. Or skip art altogether.

“You can just go look at a tree,” she said. “You can look at a rock.”

Your attention is a product of a lot of things, said Professor Mark, not all of which are in your power. But a little practice can help. “We do many behaviors that are automatic,” she said. “Becoming aware of such automatic behaviors is a skill, and we can then better control where we place our attention.”

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And with that skill honed, you may linger more, and better.