Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Value Of Desolation

March 22, 2019

Few months ago a painter doing some interior work at our house volunteered that the earth is flat. He knew of a group that “went way up in Alaska, went to the edge, and looked over. You can see about it on the internet.” Apollo 11 took place in a Hollywood studio. Fake news.

Don’t know what is more incredible. That humans were able to get to the moon and back with the engineering done by slide rule and pencil or that all of the technology that ensued has, among much else, enabled beliefs such as the above. If it is on the internet it must be true…

Norman Mailer’s brilliant reportage of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins’ trip to the moon and back was prescient even regarding technical advance and the associated epiphenomenal states of mind that followed (NB This was 1969):

“Computers the size of a package of cigarettes would then be able to do the work of present computers the size of a trunk.”

“Because the computer was the essence of Narcissism (the computer could not conceive of its inability to correct its own mistakes) a view of (the future) suggested a technological narcissism so great that freak newspeak was its only cure.”

“So the mind could race ahead to see computers programming go-to-school routes in the nose of every kiddie car – the paranoid mind could see crystal transmitters sewn into the rump of every juvenile delinquent – doubtless, everybody would be easier to monitor.”

Impressive, huh. But the book – Of a Fire on the Moon – is much more than that. The author presents himself as the zeitgeist. An uber zeitgeist. He even calls himself ‘Aquarius” (as in “The Age of …”) a move so brazen that failure was virtually assured. But he succeeds. He succeeds by not allowing his perspicacity to overshadow his humanity.

“(The writer was) beginning to observe as if he were invisible. A danger sign. Only the very best and worst novelists can write as if they are invisible.”

Mailer is in no way here invisible. We are with him as his fourth marriage unwinds.

We are with him at the launch. In great detail he describes the physics, chemistry, and engineering of rockets and propulsion which in no way prepares us for the event:

“Then it came… Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of the combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivable louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet … an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death… Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!…”

And that’s only a snippet.

Also, it is impossible in this short bit to give any sense for the depth and breadth of knowledge Mailer is able to bring to bear.

A short example:

“(The writer) had been devoted to painting for close to thirty years; an amateur of the mysteries of form, it took him close the thirty years to comprehend why Cezanne was the father of modern art and godfather to photographs of the far side of the moon.”

And finally, his take on point of view:

“It was a terror to write if one wished to speak of important matters and did not know if one was qualified – sometimes the depressions helped to give sanction to the verdicts taken. It was not so unreasonable. The question is whether it is better to trust a judge who travels through the desolations before passing sentence, or a jurist who has a good meal, a romp with his mistress, a fine night of sleep, and a penalty of death in the morning for the highwayman.”


November 23, 2013


That’s a cresset.  A concave metal frame lined, in this case, with screening, fixed atop a pole, filled with combustible material, and set alight.  It is not difficult to imagine that a precursor apparatus was first developed not long after Prometheus and that the underlying motivation remained largely unchanged up to at least Colonial Williamsburg from whence came the model for what you see above.   It’s not ‘green’, but fun and was employed with great success to gain the attention of trick or treaters  a few steps more than the usual remove from our front door.

Thoughts of that flickering came to mind for some reason when reading about the findings recently released from NASA’s Kepler project – the search for earth like planets beyond our solar system.  Many questions are left to be answered, but, long story short, there could be a lot of ‘em out there.  Billions.  Programs like Science Friday on NPR had researchers arguing and foaming at the mouth by turns.  This here observer is left with the thought that it will likely be a long time till we will know if Goldilocks could really be out there.

Unless, that is, the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) transmitting/listening devices that have been reoriented as a result of Kepler yield something interesting.  One researcher said that the amount of space scanned up till now, relative to what’s out there, is analogous to the draft of a single cup from the rest our planet’s waters and that the effort will be greatly refined based upon Kepler findings.  So, assuming that ET’s not already been here and left bemused, perhaps the redirected signals will be perceived by some entity able to detect them and respond more quickly than the multi light year distance would have us think possible.

Hope they’re friendly.  Hope they help us all with our wood chopping and water carrying obligations, as opposed to, say, annihilating us.  Steven Hawking and others point to the fate of native peoples subsequent to contact with cultures more advanced.  Not pretty.  But what, me worry?  Na.  Just as I turned to see birds dart about against wispy cirrus bathed in the soft pink light of dusk, a Pandora DJ spun a string rendition of the Beatles’ Blackbird*.  It’s Friday and I’ll soon be home with wife and little black princess Nellie.  Who knows how things really work?  The only people I trust say that they don’t.  Louis Kahn said that a great question is far more important than attempts to answer.  Yep.

cirrus 2

*You should listen to it.  On Three Fervent Travelers by Time for Three.

Thank God for Kutta-Joukowski

January 13, 2012


Know that a bird’s flight feathers are analogous to the blades on an airplane’s propeller?  It is actually the other way around of course, birds came before airplanes after all, but that is the manner in which the astonishment came to me.

And I’m not the Lone Ranger.  Long before Kitty Hawk there were attempts at manned flight designed around the avian wing.  The problem was propulsion.  Wright Brothers, or someone else, would have been aloft sooner had they understood how birds do more than just glide.

OK, you’ll remember that the mechanics of flight revolve around a curved surface – an airfoil.  As it moves through air (or water – think penguins) the molecules flowing over the curved top must move faster than those with the shorter path to travel below.  This creates a drop in air pressure above and lift*.

Well, the outermost part of a wing – the hand wing – is composed of stiff slightly pointed primaries which are longitudinally asymmetrical.  When a bird in flight flaps downward the narrower portion of the primaries curve creating airfoils and voila forward ‘lift’ occurs.

The several primaries on both wings of a bird combine into an analogue for a multi-blade propeller.  One on each wing.  Try it yourself next time you find a feather.  Hold it by the bare part of the shaft and move it through the air as had its original owner.  You won’t take off, but you’ll get the idea.

My favorite bird?  Cooper’s Hawk.  It is incredible to watch them Top Gun song birds.  Cuts bird seed budget line item way back.

*Bernoulli’s principle, developed in the eighteenth century, explains the ramifications of the pressure differential, but not why the air moves faster on top than underneath.  Explanations of flight and lift always bothered me because I was unable to get that part.  I’m happy to report that the Kutta-Joukowski theorem, developed in the twentieth century addresses that aspect.  It is complicated and I don’t completely understand, but feel better to know that I might one day.

How To Never Have A Sick Day

December 16, 2011


   I obviously like words.  I have the OED on my hard drive and enjoy just cruising through it from time to time.  My son used to call me Mr. Big Words, but truth be told I am almost always dead last in a Scrabble challenge.  Guess I’m just good at looking stuff up.

  I should probably come clean though and fess that my favorite words are monosyllabic, terse, and widely understood.  Even among non English speakers.   I remember a drunken Swedish stevedore reeling them off on a North Sea wharf long ago even before I heard George Carlin do so. 

  They come in handy.  Our first dog would hide when she heard me strapping on my tool belt because she knew what to expect.  Our recently passed pal Sauger wouldn’t though, but he was a guy and must have understood. 

  I’m sure I’m responsible for the, uh, clever part of our three kids’ vocabulary.  Isn’t it an event of which to be proud when your child is first heard to say “oh crap” when the family gets caught outside in the rain?  Or drops the f-bomb at Thanksgiving dinner while sporting a cherubic first step grin?

  Furthermore, I’m happy to relate that there is no longer any reason to feel even a twinge of guilt for having set such an example.  Exemplar is more like it.  Salty language has been proven to be an avenue to salubrity.  “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear” said psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England in his study “Swearing as a response to pain”.

  He and his colleague Claudia Umland undertook a project in which subjects held their hands in freezing water for as long as they could.  Some were told to spew epithet(s) of choice without relent and others to keep mum.  The former withdrew their hands long after the latter group gave up.

  Scientists theorize that cursing emanates from a different part of the brain than does pitter patter.  A part (the amygdala) more closely associated with emotion and the fight or flight response.  It has been an evolutionary advantage to feel one’s self gird quickly up at the first note of pain through whatever sensory system the message might have arrived.

  Hmm.  I read somewhere that Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney said that trolling his mind for just the right word was indeed like throwing a line in a pond to catch a fish.  What could be the metaphor or simile for my more base proclivity?  Like plunging a stool? 

  Oh well, could though be why I haven’t had a sick day in thirty-five years.  I’ll have to ask Dr. Brother.  And hope he doesn’t say anything to Mom.

*Study was published in the journal NeuroReport in July 2009.  I read about it in Scientific American.

Partial Exsanguination

August 19, 2011


  Early AM last Friday pumping my bike up a steep hill central to our downtown I noticed a bright red light – “Plasma” – and a bunch of people coughing and smoking off to the left.  Oh my.  Nearly (to be honest, completely and wasted) out of breath, I didn’t realize till I crested that those folks were basically selling body parts to fund their bad habits. 

  Later in the day while donating some of my own good stuff I asked about that.  Turns out that plasma traded for cash won’t/can’t by law soon enter the system of another human.  Good to know.  It might though later, because it’s sold to pharmaceutical companies as an ingredient.  That business model is strangely analogous to the one beginning with a cocoa leaf grower and ending with a cartel kingpin.

  The process of giving blood is surprisingly nearly without pain.  Remember when you were a kid and some mustachioed nurse would prick your finger with a broken rusty razorblade?  And it felt like an electric shock?  Well, now, at the blood center you do not even notice when they draw a small sample from your finger to check iron levels.  No foolin’.

  And when it comes time for what my kids call a blood shot, the comparison continues to be valid.  Metallurgical advancements have made today’s needles thinner and sharper.  Probably helps that they’re not sterilized and reused.  Just watch the large screen TV and you’ll hardly flinch. 

  The most unpleasant part of the deal?  I’ve noticed that vigorous exercise undertaken the day after a donation usually feels, well, crappy.  I asked my MD brother about this.  “Hey man, is giving blood sort of the opposite of blood doping?  When one gives back to himself a unit of highly oxygenated blood?”

  “Ya, genius, that’s why they tell you not to do anything strenuous”.



Be Careful With What It Thinks

June 10, 2011


  Stepped the mast of our sailboat last night and then saw this summer’s first lightening bug while walking dog.  Was reminded, again, of the subtle interjection of dynamism the seasons’ change provides.  Always something new to think about.

  Most of the ones you see flashing are males.  All of the ones flying and flashing.  With their fireworks, they’re trying to impress the females in the grass below. The success rate is low because competition is high – the m/f ratio can be as high as thirty to one.  The girls each flirt with up to ten different suitors simultaneously, by signaling back, before choosing one with which to bed.

   How does she choose?  Well, sometimes a female equates a male’s flashing sequence with the size of his package.  Seriously.  It goes like this:  Firefly larva spend the first two years of their lives underground.  They don’t eat for their two week adulthood above ground. 

  Along with sperm the successful male passes a protein rich ‘nuptial gift’ to his mate enabling her to produce more eggs while she slowly starves.  The ecstatic coupling ordeal can last from dusk to dawn.

  There are some 2,000 firefly species on the planet of which a handful will be found in North America.  You might encounter several in your yard this evening.  You can differentiate by the pulse pattern – sort of like Morse code.  Pulse pulse, three second pause, pulse pulse = Photinus greeni.  Pulse, five second pause, pulse = Photinus ignitus.

  It’s thought that the ability to thus show off began in larvae eons ago as a means to convey a warning to would be predators.  Bitter taste.  Evolution coursed the luminance up the ontogeny to where we see it today.  Still though tastes bad to most other creatures which led to another bifurcation in these insects’ family tree.

  Firefly Photuris will sit in the grass feigning femininity by returning the flash of a male on wing.  Said male approaches hoping to do the dirty but gets eaten instead.  Photuris is thus even more repellent to potential predators. 

  Photuris seems to go for a rapid flash rate, just like the females.  So if a bug hopes to avoid trouble and get lucky instead it should probably try to be more suave than debonair.  And like Dad said, it should be careful with what it thinks.

*I read most of this stuff in the June 30, 2009 NYT    

Florence Shore – End of the World as We Know It

June 3, 2011


  An interesting article in the current Economist (5/24-6/3) reminds us that before Copernicus, it was thought that the earth was at the center of the universe and that we upon it were all thus imbued with God’s grace.  As the sciences evolved the perception of our position devolved to the point where, well, that “we are stardust”.

  Yep, old news.  The point of view now gaining traction though is that humankind has assumed the central role debunked long ago – at least insofar as our planet is concerned. Clear cut forestry, strip mining, large scale farming, carbon based energy etc and all the related ramifications are “bringing about an age of planetary change”.

  Geologists call the more or less discrete (geologically, meteorologically, etc) epoch in which we’ve been for the last 10,000 years the Holocene.  Scientist Paul Crutzen came to the belief that the wake the coming of man left behind has begun to shape something new.    He’s suggested we call the new age the “Anthropocene”.

  I was thinking about this the other day while in the bank with MD erstwhile geologist brother when he pointed out the ‘captured’ fossil pictured above on an interior wall.  He said it was a “cephalosomething” embedded in metamorphic limestone aka marble. He went on to say that some buildings and groups of buildings (college campuses e.g.) have maps and guidebooks locating and describing incredible arrays of such stuff.  The Burgess Shale as interior decoration!

  I realized that at some distant point in the future these buildings will have collapsed into the ground, archaeology will sort of transmute into paleontology, and given the trajectory of the average level of intelligence worry that whoever is doing the research be really confused. “How did this cephalosomething get here?  They went extinct eons before the other stuff in this layer…”

  I follow the logic above, but hesitate to adopt the new perspective.  There are too many dopes around who will get the wrong idea.  Might even think the changes we’ve wrought are something of which to be proud.  In 2005 Patagonia founder and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard said: “Forty-eight percent of people in America still don’t believe in evolution… don’t believe in global warming because it relies on scientific interpretations of core samples that are hundreds of thousands of years old, and they think the earth is only six to ten thousand years old”*.

  Some of us are even dimmer.  Jersey Shore is in its fourth season.  They’re in Florence!  People watch.  Rest my case.**

*Alpinist 12 Autumn 2005

**OMG It gets worse.  On NPR with Terri Gross Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari describes being beaten in Teheran’s notorious Evin prison while his torturer asked about New Jersey – his interest having been piqued by the show.

At Least I Know What A Newt Is…

January 28, 2011


  Some time back, somewhere, I read that business people have just about the biggest vocabularies of all professions.  False.  Not even close.  My doctor brother knows all the words I do (me businessman) – and a whole lot more.

  The other day I was looking through an issue of one of his Journals of the American Medical Association and had to use a dictionary so often that I’d lose the sense of a passage and have to start over.  Exactly similar to reading something in a nearly forgotten foreign language. 

  Nonetheless, I’ve never met a periodical I didn’t like and this was no exception.  The most interesting bit (so far) was entitled: “Re- ‘evolutionary’ Regenerative Medicine”* which asks: “Can an evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms used by ‘lowly’ organisms inform the approach to human tissue regeneration?”

  Through most of the article the authors use the example of a newt, or more specifically one minus a limb.  How does it grow back and why won’t they, damaged heart tissue, etc grow back in humans?  Seems that science has long thought that a limb-bud (blastema) was made of “multipotent” cells (like stem cells I guess) that somehow took appropriate new form.

  Turns out not to be the case.  Instead, the already specialized cells  (cartilage, bone, neural, and muscle) of the stump/bud are enabled to re-enter the cell cycle and proliferate anew.  Furthermore, “A crucial step would likely entail ‘lifting the brakes’ on cell division, but only transiently, to avoid uncontrolled proliferation and tumor formation.”

  It sort of follows that mammals and other species might have lost to cancer the ability to regenerate.  Those of our (way) distant ancestors that did finagle new stuff also developed cancer at an unsurvivable rate.  I think that’s what they mean.  Does make you wonder about how newts et al made it through though.

  Anyway, they figured out that inhibition of a certain tumor suppressing gene mediated newt limb regeneration.  In humans the suppression of a homologous gene does not.  Seems that the culprit is a certain ‘alternative reading frame protein’ which isn’t found in any species capable of regeneration.   This ARF is frequently inactivated in human cancers.

  The above described existing route to a new limb (for some creatures) is then different than the one based upon stem cells and has several  advantages warranting further research.  Some tissues don’t seem to have stem cells.  Methods to steer stem cell development towards a specific destiny haven’t been worked out nor has a means of reintroduction of new into diseased or damaged tissue.

  No brainer then huh? 

  Also, seems obvious that those against stem cell research must not be avid readers of JAMA.  Final (for now) point of interest is that a work of art graces the covers of each issue and that three recent ones have borne works from our (Figge Art Museum’s that is) vault.  Cover of this issue pictured below.

*Re”evolutionary”Regenerative Medicine; H.M Blau; J.H. Pomerantz; JAMA 1/5/11; p87

Hand to Mind

December 31, 2010


  The drawing above, by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, appears in the spectacular new book: Portraits of the Mind.  It is a fascinating tome leavening a narrative of the development of neuroscience with extraordinary images of milestones along the way.

  The exquisite quality of many of the images conveys a sense of wonder in three different regards: of the brain’s incredible intricacy; of the genius of the techniques invented to make that observation possible; and of the incredible talent employed in a variety of media bearing witness.

  Jonah Lehrer writes in the forward: “Keats knew that truth exists in a tangled relationship with beauty, and nothing illustrates that poetic concept better than these scientific images.  Their empirical power is entwined with their visual majesty.”  Yep.

  Nobel laureate (1906) Ramon y Cajal has been called the father of modern neuroscience.  Using a technique developed by his contemporary and co-Nobel recipient Camillo Golgi*, he found that the “fundamental organizational and functional units of the nervous system are individual cells” – neurons.  This ‘Neuron Doctrine’ supplanted the Reticular Theory which had held that the nervous system was a vast unorganized, unstructured, tangled net.

  The work above depicts axons wrapped around a neuron.  Specifically those of a thalamus.**  The draftsmanship is stunning – one gets a sense of three dimensions by the manner in which he manipulated the quality of the axon lines about the bulbous soma and its dendrites.  The axons have come from other neurons with messages.  The interaction is exquisite. 

  I was so moved in contemplation that a particular drawing of Albrecht Durer’s came to mind.  Look at the Head of Dead Christ below and see how his fine touch gave Christ’s beard a wondrous 3D tactility. Jordan Kantor wrote of the work that: “Through the miracle of Durer’s facile hand, the charcoal itself almost becomes the dead body of Christ”.***

  From vastly different perspectives, but with similar apparent simplicity, two great men have managed to take our breath away in  meditation on the nature of mind, man, and the human condition. 

*They didn’t like each other, didn’t work together, and spoke ill of each other during their acceptance speeches.

**Interestingly, Ramon y Cajal’s work showed that neurons and their parts differ from one part of the brain to another.  “Each part of the brain bears its own signature architecture of axons”.  The breadth of shapes and sizes (as depicted by R y C) is amazing.

***Durer’s Passions, Harvard


October 29, 2010


  Sometimes while passing through the entryway to my grocery store I watch pasty sorts of folks assiduously scrubbing down shopping carts before touching them.  No foolin’.  A little exercise would boost their immune systems far more than the deficit a few germs might cause and would put a bit of color in their cheeks to boot.

   You can be too clean.  When I was a kid my MD grandfather would say that the healthiest babies were those nursed from coke bottles to which plastic nipples had been attached.  Recent research would uphold his observation.  As recounted in (among other places) a fine article by Melinda Beck in the 5-18-10 WSJ, the “hygiene hypothesis” holds that “exposure to a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasitic worms early in life helps prime a child’s immune system much like sensory experiences program his brain”.

  The simile is made even more interesting by the fact that Gerald Edelman, awarded the medicine Nobel for his elucidation of immune system mechanics, was the one who later drew the analogy between it and neuronal development.  He coined the term “Neural Darwinism”.

  Allergies and autoimmune diseases were rare before the advent of modern sanitation and still are in the third world.  Furthermore, there are clinical trials underway (re)introducing bugs such as pig whipworm to the gut as treatment for those “modern” ailments.

  The article also points out that “children who grow up on farms have low rates of allergies and asthma”; “children who attend day care during the first six months of life have lower incidence of eczema and asthma”; “Having one or more older siblings also protects against hay fever, asthma, multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes” (you’re welcome bro); and more.

  Very obviously however, one does not wish a return to the unsanitary conditions of yore.  The ultimate ramifications of poor water quality are even more pernicious than the obvious tragedy of an elevated infant mortality rate.  The energy drained by endemic diarrhea during impoverished youth will irreversibly attenuate cerebral potential and thus that of an eventual ruling class.

  But, still, here we are.  I once asked MD brother how dogs could drink from questionable puddles and not get sick.  He said “a better question is why we would”.  In the 10-15-10 Men’s Journal, Yvon Chouinard gave as his best survival tip that one should drink out of every stream one might fish.  Gave him a good gut.  “I can go to any country and eat out of the bazaars and don’t get sick.”

  Hmm.  Never seen catfish in a Patagonia catalogue…

*Top photo from the WSJ article

**Kid who rolled in paint went then to a mud hole.  Dad got in trouble.

***Bottom photo shows that we count on her for everything.