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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Running and Breathing

On a recent NOVA podcast (09/03/2010 "Chasing Down Dinner"), David Levin talked about the way animals breath.

A quadruped mammal is four legged.  Cows, zebras, and dogs are examples.  In these animals, their stride is synchronized with their breathing.  A stride is one full cycle of leg movement while walking or running..  For instance, in a human, a stride is two steps.  When running, a quadruped's breathing is aided by the movement of the muscles and skeleton.

Here is a picture of a contraption put together by a physiology professor to teach how this happens.  "A" shows the animal moving the front legs forward during running.  The lungs expand at the same time and the animal inhales.  "B" shows the back legs coming forward and the animal would then exhale.  The ratio of stride to breath in a quadruped is 1:1.  One stride, one breath.  When the stride is lengthened, the volume of air into the lungs is increased.

As humans, our natural inclination is to also breath in synchrony to our stride.  But because we are upright and on two feet (bipedal) the ratio is different and can be more flexible.  The normal ratio is 2:1. Two strides to one breath.  A slow run can change that ratio to 4:1.

Humans, as a whole, are better adapted to endurance rather than speed.  Dennis M. Bramble, a biomechanist and vertebrate biologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Daniel E. Lieberman, a biomechanist and anthropologist at Harvard University, have been studying the history of running in human beings.  They have come to the conclusion that our ancestors had an advantage with this ability to run long distances.  The animals they were chasing could not sustain a long distance.  Quadrupeds cannot pant when galloping, so their bodies would overheat and they would have to stop and try to cool off.  Meanwhile, the humans would continue in the chase and catch up.  The animals would then run again and soon were too overheated to run any longer, making it relatively easy to catch dinner.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

And Eye(tooth) for an Eye

Sharron "Kay" Thornton is a sixty-one-year-old woman who lives in Mississippi.  Ten years ago she lost her eyesight due to a rare skin disease, called Stevens-Johnson syndrome, that attacked her eyes, damaged her cornea (the clear window at the front of the eye), and left her blind.  She was not eligible for a cornea or an artificial cornea transplant.  Doctors tried a stem cell treatment, but it was unsuccessful.

Last year, she went to see Dr. Victor L. Perez of the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.  He decided to try a procedure that was developed in Italy but had never been done in the United States.  It is called modified osteo-odento-keratoprosthesis.

They took out one of her eye teeth, also called canine teeth, and part of the bone above that tooth.  They shaved it down to the proper shape and size and punched a hole in the middle, where an acrylic lens was inserted.  This was implanted into her shoulder for 3 months while they waited for the bone and the lens to fuse. 

The scars from around her cornea were removed and moist cheek tissue was used to cover the eye to rehabilitate it.  When the time was right, the tooth/bone/lens piece was removed from her shoulder and implanted in her eye.  It was carefully aligned with her retina. The bone keeps it from moving out of place. The cheek tissue is still on the eye, but has a hole where the lens pokes out.  She cannot close her eye fully, and the cheek tissue helps to keep it moist.

Here is a graphic from the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute that shows what was done.  When the bandages were removed, she had 20/70 vision!  They expect it will get better with time.

The procedure has been performed on 600 people around the world.  Very ingenious.  It seems to work best for people who have been blinded by chemical burns, thermal burns, rare reactions to drugs, and other cases where normal corneal transplants would not work.

There is another video of a man in the UK who was blind for 26 years.  You can go to youtube to watch it.  (7:28 min long)

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Paths of Legends

This past week I finished the book That's Not in My American History Book by Thomas Ayres. It was very interesting and had many stories -- some that were familiar and some that were new to me.  Here is one I didn't know.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, was the first president to have an assassination attempt on his life. It happened on January 30th, 1835. President Jackson had just attended a congressional funeral held in the House Chamber of the Capitol. As he exited, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter, pointed a pistol at Jackson and fired.  The percussion cap exploded, but the bullet did not discharge.

Jackson moved toward Lawrence and started beating him with his cane. During the ensuing scuffle, Lawrence took another pistol out of his pocket and pulled the trigger. But that gun also misfired. Bystanders joined in, wrestling Lawrence to the ground and disarming him. One of them was Rep. Davy Crockett of Tennessee. (For those of you over a certain age, now is the time to start singing, "Davy, Davy Crockett. King of the wild frontier!")

About a hundred years later the Smithsonian Institute examined both of these guns and couldn't find anything wrong that would have made them misfire.

Richard Lawrence was mentally ill. He believed that he was Richard III, rightful heir to the throne of England and that President Jackson was keeping him from it.

The case went to trial. The prosecuting attorney wanted Lawrence to get the death penalty because, he said, any attack on the president of the United States is an attack on the United States. The defense attorney used the reasoning, for the first time in a court of law, that the prisoner should be found not guilty for the reason of insanity.

The jury deliberated for a very short time.  They bought the argument of the defense attorney.  Richard Lawrence spent the rest of his life in mental institutions.  

The prosecuting attorney was very disappointed.  He was the man whom you know as the author of The Star Spangled Banner, written twenty-one years earlier. It was Francis Scott Key.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I Ain't Scared of You

Toxoplasmosis.  If you are pregnant or are planning on becoming pregnant, this is one parasite you should know about and work hard at avoiding. It can pass through the placenta and negatively affect a growing fetus.  The consequences vary from mild to devastating.  It is transmitted to humans through cat feces.  It can be contracted from cleaning a cat litter tray, eating raw or undercooked meat, drinking unpasteurized milk, eating unwashed vegetables, working in the garden without gloves, or from exposure to a child's uncovered sandbox.

Dr. Rober Sapolsky calls it "Toxo."  He is a leading neuroscientist who is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, as well as a research associate in Kenya.  He has received numerous awards for his scientific studies.  Here is an interview with him talking about Toxo.  It is fascinating and about 24 minutes long.  Well worth watching every minute, in my opinion.

In the life cycle of this parasite, it reproduces in the gut of a cat.  The eggs are shed in the feces, which are then picked up by rats and other animals that just might get eaten by a cat.  Toxoplasma forms cysts throughout the rat, including the brain. And yet a rat that is infected with it is perfectly healthy. That makes good sense for the parasite, since a cat would not be particularly interested in eating a dead rat. But scientists at Oxford discovered that the parasite "changes the rats in one subtle but vital way."

Rats respond negatively to the smell of a cat. The stress response in the rat goes up, and his instinct is to avoid the area where the smell was detected.  Makes sense.  When a rat is infected with Toxo, and smells a cat, the fear circuit in the rat does not activate.  Not only is he not afraid of the cat, but the sexual arousal circuit is activated slightly.  Wow!  This parasite has figured out how to get back into a cat so it can reproduce!  Just make the rat want to be around the cat, who will eat him.

When scientists in the UK looked at the genome (the genes and DNA) for Toxoplasma, they were astonished to find two versions of a gene that makes dopamine.  Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in the brain that is all about reward and anticipation of reward.  It is involved with emotional response, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.  So in other words, this parasite has the gene that allows it to plug into the reward system of the brain.

So what about humans?  Can it affect our brains?  Besides the disaster of Toxo getting into the nervous system of a pregnant woman and her fetus, there are other things that go on in humans.

The first part of the infection might have symptoms like inflammation, sore throat, just not feeling well.  Then those symptoms disappear.  This is when the cysts form in the brain. For a rat, it is when the parasite makes the dopamine and the strange behavior of seeking out a cat occurs.  In men who are infected, their behavior can become impulsive.  Women less so.  There are two different groups, independent of each other, who have studied this and find that men who are affected are 3 to 4 times more likely to be killed in a high risk activity, such as reckless speeding in a car.

The personality of humans being changed by some invading organism is not a rare pattern.  The rabies virus changes both animal and human brains to become more aggressive. It knows how to make the host want to bite someone and pass on the particles of the virus.  And this parasite knows how to perpetuate its existence.

There are other areas that are being studied as having a possible link to Toxoplasma.  One is schizophrenia.  There is too much dopamine in the brain of a schizophrenic, and there is some evidence of a rate of increase to children whose mothers had cats when she was pregnant.  There are also questions about "cat women" being infected.  Scientist are still studying these and other aspects of this condition.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

To Feel Nothing

Hansen's Disease, formerly known as leprosy, still exists around the world.  Since the development of medicines for it, it is no longer a fatal illness, nor has is it ever been highly infectious. It is a chronic illness.  The incubation period is anywhere from nine months to 20 years.  That makes it very difficult to pinpoint where or when one has been exposed to the disease.

The bacteria that causes Hansen's Disease prefers the parts of the body that are cooler -- the earlobes, the nose, the fingers and toes, and the eyes, though it can be anywhere on the body.  It resides in the nerves and damages them.  Where the sores are -- there is diminished or no feeling.  The devastating thing about the eyes being affected is that the blink reflex is lost.  Without blinking, the eyes dry out and foreign matter is not washed away.

This is a picture of a Belgium priest named Father Damien who spent sixteen years on the island of Molokai in Hawaii caring for the lepers who had been exiled there. He contracted Hansen's Disease and died in 1889 at the age of 49.

There is a book called "The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai" by John Tayman.  It is a very interesting read.  This quote from the books shows some ingenuity.

"Doctors tried training patients to blink on schedule, using a timer or some other device. The technique worked in some cases, but only if the patient was physically able. Leprosy bacilli also attack the nerve controlling eyelid muscles, creating a condition known as lagophthalmos, in which the person is unable to close the eyelids. In such cases surgeons rigged a thread of muscle from the jaw to the lid, which caused the person to blink as he chewed - doctors then handed them a pack of gum."

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Left or Right?

When you pick up an infant, is it more likely for you to hold the child in your left arm or your right?  It has been found that 70-80% of women, regardless of which hand is dominant, hold babies with their left arm. 

Dr. Karl on a Triple J podcast pointed this out.  He said that with the help of physicians, mothers were studied quietly.  After examining an infant, the doctor would return the infant to the mother to the midline of her body.  Not toward the left nor the right.  The majority would take the baby and hold the child in her left arm. 

There are many different studies that I have read.  There seems to be two ideas about why this side preference might occur.  Some state that intuitively and subconsciously moms have figured out that the baby is more calm on the left side.  Before birth the baby can hear the mother's heart beating and it is a familiar, comforting sound. After birth, the baby can hear the mother's heart beat better when being held on the left side. This conclusion has many critics and is not well supported.

Many more studies believe that the left-side preference has to do with holding the baby on the side of the body that connects to the part of the brain which is dominant for processing emotions.  A mother is then better able to read the emotions of the child and react better. 

One of these studies found that mothers who cradle the baby on the right side speak higher and louder to their child than those who hold on the left.  Some mothers go back and forth between holding right and left.  Their pitch and volume went up when holding on the right.

There have also been studies about which side people prefer when hugging or kissing.  The majority of people tilt their heads to the right when kissing, and approach another person's left side when hugging.  Some of these reports think that the left-side baby cradling preference and the left-side approach to hugging are related.

There are many, many sites with this information.  Here are a few links. 

General overview
Do you kiss to the right or left?
Hugging preference
Pitch and volume differences
Left-sided baby cradling preference studies done on great apes.

Being right-handed, I always thought that I held my children on my left hip so that I could use my right hand to do things.  According to these studies, right-handers in general feel the same as I do.  And left-handers say they cradle on the left because that is the stronger arm.  It turns out it all might come down to our subconscious knowing the best way and our conscious mind coming up with a reason.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Can You Hear that Color?

Have you ever heard of synesthesia?  It is an accident of nature that would be fun to have.

Synesthesia is when two different senses are abnormally joined.  For instance, some synesthetes always see a certain color when they hear a certain musical note.  The most common form is colored numbers or letters, but any combination is possible.  There is a report of one man who tasted chocolate when he said his wife's name.  Another man claims that cucumbers taste pink.

Every synesthete experiences things uniquely.  For instance, one who sees an A major chord as purple, always sees it as purple.  But another might see that sound as yellow.

"I could never figure out why I was such a poor student at Math, until I received a 32 color pen for a present. FINALLY NUMBERS WERE THE RIGHT COLOR, 2 was yellow, 3 was green, 4 was orange, 5 was red, and so on. My teacher thought I was nutty, but when she invested in colored chalk, my Math scores SOARED... she just had to get the colors right. Oddly another student and I got into a fist-fight because he thought 3 should be blue, and 8 should be green... I won, and I made him cry, too..."

Estimates of the frequency of synesthesia range from 1 in 250,000 to 1 in 2,000.  Some famous people have this condition.  Most seem to be creative, such as musicians and artists.
Leonard Bernstein
Duke Ellington
Billy Joel
Stevie Wonder
Eddie Van Halen
Jimi Hendrix 
Frank Lloyd Wright
Victor Hugo 

Synesthetes tend to be:
Women: in the U.S., studies show that three times as many women as men have synesthesia; in the U.K., eight times as many women have been reported to have it. The reason for this difference is not known
Left-handed: synesthetes are more likely to be left-handed than the general population.
Neurologically normal: synesthetes are of normal (or possibly above average) intelligence, and standard neurological exams are normal.
In the same family: synesthesia appears to be inherited in some fashion; it seems to be a dominant trait and it may be on the X-chromosome.

The causes of synesthesia remain unknown. Some scientists have suggested that everyone is born synesthetic but that as the brain develops, the different areas become segregated.  It is not known why synesthetes retain these connections.  There might be a biological answer, because the condition tends to run in families.

For further reading, you might enjoy these books.
The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowi
Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard E. Cytowi

Now you have heard something interesting.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Northern Lights

I have always been fascinated with the Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights.  It has been my dream to go to Alaska or somewhere in the northern latitudes and see them someday.  Citizens of Fairbanks, Alaska, at a latitude of 65 degrees north, can see the Northern Lights an average of 240 nights a year!

One night a few years ago, I went outside in my back yard and was a little mystified at what I saw in the sky. It was well past the sunset, but the sky in the West had streaks of red as if the sun were just going down.  And the sky in the East had streaks of red as if the sun was about to rise. It was absolutely beautiful! I just stood outside and gazed in wonder at the spectacle.  In fact, it took me a while to figure out what it was that I was seeing. Those northern lights coasting farther south than usual.

I live in Pleasant Grove, Utah, (about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City) at a latitude of 40 degrees North.  Although it is not normal for the northern lights to drift this far, during very large auroral events, they have been seen as far south as Mexico City.  It is a rare sight there.

There is a podcast that is enjoyable to listen to called The Naked Scientist.  It sounds intriguing, but there is nothing a child shouldn't hear in this podcast.  The other day they described what happens when the northern lights are visible.

The sun has bursts of energy called solar flares.  A solar wind carries these charged energy particles from the sun and they collide with the Earth's magnetic field.
This collision produces the lights.  It generates as much as a million megawatts of electricity.  One megawatt will supply enough power to sustain 1,000 averages households for one year.  So a million megawatts would power one billion average households for one year!  A small part of this electricity causes discharge in the upper atmosphere and creates light much in the same way as a neon sign creates light. The kind of atom in the solar wind determines the color. 

*The aurora in the southern hemisphere is known as the Aurora Australis.  It is almost a mirror image of the Aurora Borealis.
*Auroras have also been observed on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Mars, and Venus.
*The aurora gets its name from the Roman goddess of dawn.

Now you have heard something interesting. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

Vestibular System and Hyperactivity

It is so satisfying to me to learn something new, and then run across a reference to it from some other source.  Today I have a great example.  In my very first blog post in January, 2010, the subject was the vestibular system.  It is the part of the inner ear that does not process sound, but rather helps with balance, movement through space - even in the dark, response to gravity, sense of space, etc.  I loved learning that.

Last month I finished reading a book called "Emergence" by Temple Grandin.  She is a woman who has a Ph.D and has "recovered" from autism.  In one of the stories of her memory as a child, she relates how she went to a fair and ended up on a ride where one stands by an outside curving wall, the ride spins around very quickly, and then the floor falls away.  She described her fear and the overwhelming amount of sensory input.  Then, surprisingly, it became relaxing to her.  One sentence in the story caught my eye.  She referred to a study that has been done recently of the benefits of spinning in an office chair a few times a week for a child who is hyperactive and how it calms them.

Well, that got my attention! But she did not source the study or give any more details.  So I went to the Internet and have been reading many pages on the vestibular system and how it affects us.  I did not find the study that she mentioned, but I did find some interesting things.

"Children with overactive vestibular systems prefer slow movement, avoid risk-taking and avoid activities that require good balance and fast movement. They are fearful of falling, elevators, going up and down stairs and being tipped upside down."

Children with an underactive vestibular system "enjoy fast spinning and swinging. They enjoy jumping, partake in dangerous activity and move while sitting."  This constant movement is the body trying to wake up the vestibular system.

Just some food for thought. Kids who fidget in class are actually doing something good for their learning.

Do you think your vestibular system is just right, overactive, or underactive?  I definitely have an overactive one. I get motion sick in IMAX theaters.  When we went to see Avatar, I was looking at the exit because I was so sure I would need to run to the restroom.  In fact, in reading about this, I came across an article with information about others who have had the same problem.  I also get dizzy if my husband spins me around while we are dancing.

Here are some links for further reading.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hotter Than White-Hot

black hole can be formed when a star comes to the end of its life and collapses in on itself.  Its size is small but its mass is quite large.  But even more amazing is that its gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. Did you know that light can be affected by gravity?  So it is called a black hole because it looks like nothing is there.  No light reflects from it. 

Here is a little clip of a renowned astrophysicist named Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about black holes.

Sgr is the abbreviation for the constellation Sagittarius. Here is a picture taken in the direction of Sagittarius.

This is a picture of Sgr A* (pronounced A-star) which is a supermassive black hole in the middle of our Milky Way galaxy. The light shown is not visible light, but by a very long x-ray exposure.  This image was taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.  The red gas on the upper right and lower left part of the image is of 20 million-degree Centigrade gas that is extending over dozens of light years away from the black hole. It is the remnant of a "meal" the black hole had dozens of years ago.  So the light has had time to travel dozens of light years away

This supermassive black hole has a mass of 3 million times that of the sun.  Mass does not refer to the size, but rather the weight an object.  A block of gold has a greater mass than the same size block of styrofoam.
Black holes can not be directly observed, but rather the evidence around them infers their presence.  For 16 years, scientist have been tracking 28 stars as they orbit an invisible point. 

The event horizon of a black hole is basically the point of no return.  Past that, there is no escaping the gravitational pull, even for light.  When matter falls or is pulled into a black hole, it gets hotter and hotter and when it reaches a few million degrees Kelvin (another temperature scale) it emits x-rays. Click here for a more detailed explanation.

The spectrum of light, when put in order by wavelength from longest to shortest, goes like this: radio, microwave, infrared, the visible region we perceive as light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays.

So you could say that it isn't red hot, or white hot, but x-ray hot!

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Radium and its "Medical Uses"

"Obsessive Genius" is a biography of Marie Curie written by Barbara Goldsmith.  In a previous post I mentioned that Marie was a Ph.D. candidate when she discovered radioactivity.  In this book I have learned many more things about her and her work.

Not only did Madame Curie discover radioactivity, but she found two new elements: polonium and radium.  It was thought that there would be medical uses for radium.  It had so much radioactive energy that it could be diluted 600,000 times and still retain its power.  Products soon appeared that were perceived as a cure for both real and imaginary illnesses.

"Minute dilutions of radium were added to tea, health tonics, face creams, lipsticks, bath salts, costumes that glowed in the dark, and so forth. La Créme Activa, purported to contain radium, was guaranteed to keep skin looking young. Curie Hair Tonic guaranteed no loss of hair. A bag containing radium worn near the scrotum was said to restore virility; a Cosmos Bag was strapped to the waist for arthritis. Radium toothpaste was said to preserve and whiten teeth, a radium inhaler to increase the vigor and enrich the blood.....Créme Tho-Radia...advertisements showed a beautiful blonde woman with flawless skin bathed in blue light.

"One could buy a Revigorator -- a flask lined with radium to be filled with water each night to drink the following morning.  Radithor, a drink containing one part radium salts to 60,000 parts zinc sulfide, was said to cure stomach cancer, mental illness, and restore sexual vigor and vitality.  An American industrialist, Eben Byers, drank a bottle a day for four years, at the end of which he died in excruciating pain from cancer of the jaw as his facial bones disintegrated."

It was a novelty to wealthy people who would carry  glass vials containing tiny particles of radium bromide in their pockets or purses.  In June 1903 when Marie received her Ph.D., the Curies and friends had a dinner to celebrate. "After the last toast, the group strolled out into the garden.  In the dark of the night, Pierre reached in his vest pocket and drew forth a glass tube of radium bromide.  Its magnificent luminosity gleamed as he held it up, illuminating an expression of rapture on Marie's face. It also illuminated the cracked flesh and burned skin of Pierre's irrevocably destroyed fingers."

By 1906, Pierre was showing signs of radiation poisoning in the bones of his back and legs.  He was in great pain, but he didn't die from the effects of it.  Perhaps mercifully, in April, he was run over by a heavily loaded wagon on a street in Paris and died.  Otherwise, his death would have been a very prolonged, painful one.

Marie was awarded her first Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of radioactivity in the fall of 1903, just months after she received her Ph.D., though the Nobel work was done a few years earlier before the degree was finished.  It was the first time one would go to a woman.  In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her "producing radium as a pure metal."  It was the second time one was presented to a woman.  The next time a Nobel Prize would be bestowed on a woman was in 1935.  It went to her daughter, Irene, in the category of chemistry.

By the way, do you know where the money for the Nobel Prize comes from?  In November, 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and died the following year.  He had made a fortune after patenting dynamite in 1867, and left most of his money to be invested.  The interest was to be equally divided and awarded to those who make a difference in the world in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.  The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901.  It is improper to refer to those who receive a Nobel Prize as a winner  Since it is not a competition or lottery, there are no winners or losers.  Instead, they should be referred to as a Nobel Laureate. (A Laureate is a recipient of honor or recognition for achievement in an art or science.)

Now you have heard something interesting.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

In the majority of cremations, no mourners are present and the memorial service is separate.  We don't witness how it happens. Someone else takes care of it.  Because of this lack of involvement, could that change how society chooses disposal?  Perhaps the most bizarre chapter in the book "Stiff" by Mary Roach describes the alternatives to burials and cremations.  Here are a few to think about.

In Farmington Hills, Michigan, there is a funeral home owner who plans on one day using a new process called "water reduction."  (In the world of animal services, it is referred to as "tissue digestion.")  There are technical descriptions of water reduction on the Internet, but in simple terms, "it's a pressure cooker with Drano." The lye in the mixture digests the body, and what is left is two or three percent of the original body weight.  "All that remains is a pile of decollagenated bones that can crumble in one's fingers." Collagen is like a glue between the bone cells, so when this "glue" is gone, the bone that is left is no longer connected.  These bone remnants can be scattered or placed in a "bone box," a sort of mini-coffin that can be stored in a crypt or buried.

Susanne Wiigh-Masak lives on the tiny island of Lyrön in Sweden and has another idea.  She has founded a company called Promessa, which is preparing to offer organic composting in the near future as a viable choice.

Here is how it is proposed to work: A person's body "will be lowered into a vat of liquid nitrogen and frozen.  From here he will progress to the second chamber, where either ultrasound waves or mechanical vibration will be used to break his easily shattered self into small pieces, more or less the size of ground chuck.  The pieces, still frozen, will then be freeze-dried and used as compost for a memorial tree or shrub, either in a churchyard memorial park or in the family's yard." (Bacteria is added to help the process along.)  Before jumping to the conclusion that her idea is nonsense, I need to tell you that King Carl Gustav and the Church of Sweden are in her corner, rooting for her. (Pun intended!)

Her company has made a small video. 

They also have an illustrated description.

Wiigh-Masak is opposed to animals being disposed of in this manner, because "she realizes the importance of keeping respectful disposition distinct from waste disposal, of addressing the family's need for a dignified end."  However, her test grave consists of a cow that is the equivalent size of a 150-lb. cadaver.  She placed the powder into a cornstarch box, and the box in a shallow grave.  (The shallow grave is only fourteen inches deep to allow the compost to get the oxygen needed.) Later she will return to dig it up to make sure the container has disintegrated and the contents are doing as is expected.

The world is a big place with many different cultures and traditions, many different ways of taking care of the dead which are not covered here.  Of the choices of disposal talked about in the book - burial, cremation, anatomical gifting (donation to science),  water reduction, and organic composting - burial is still my first choice.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ammunition and dead men

What type of ammunition will stop a man dead (or not so dead) in his tracks?  If you are in the military, you certainly would like to know before going into battle.  Mary Roach, in her book "Stiff," describes how they found out.

The U.S. Army used cadavers in experiments with their ammunition.  They were not the first or only military to use dead bodies in this pursuit.  The French and Germans started in the early 1800's, and the Swiss in the late 1800's.

In 1904, Captain Louis La Garde of the U.S. Army Medical Corps hoped to find improved stopping power.  It had become a high priority following the Spanish-American war in the Philippines. The Army's Colt .38 had failed to stop the enemy from advancing, on many occasions.  La Garde wrote of "one battle-enlivened tribesman who charged a U.S. Army guard unit. 'When he was within 100 yards, the entire guard opened fire on him.'  Nonetheless, he managed to advance some ninety-five yards toward them before finally crashing to the ground."

La Garde thought that by shooting cadavers and measuring how far it made them swing would somehow provide information on stopping power.  It didn't.  Eventually, he came to the conclusion that living bodies were needed instead, so he used some cattle who were about to be slaughtered.  After shooting sixteen, he had an answer.  The larger caliber Colt .45 bullets caused the cattle to drop to the ground after 3 or 4 shots.  Those hit with the smaller caliber .38 bullets failed even after 10 shots.

Mary Roach has a great sense of humor which is sprinkled throughout the book.  This blog was written to share this one line with you: "And ever since, the U.S. Army has gone confidently into battle, knowing that when cows attack, their men will be ready."

Now you have heard something interesting.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Body farm

There may be some people afflicted with squeamish stomachs who might not enjoy this particular chapter in the book "Stiff" by Mary Roach.  Though the topic isn't one talked about around the dinner table, it is interesting information and we as a society benefit from what goes on at the body farm.

The original farm is on about 2 1/2 acres of land behind the medical center at the University of Tennessee. It was established in 1981.  Donated human bodies are decomposing there.  As they decay under varying conditions, detailed records are kept of everything from weather conditions to chemical changes in the tissues to the appearance and life stages of insects.  The data collected are invaluable to forensics in determining time of death.  After the decomposing is complete, the skeletons are stored for later analysis and reference in a big facility under the football stadium.  (Miss Sue, played by Kathy Bates in the movie "The Blind Side," mentions this fact to her pupil, Michael Oher, as he tries to figure out where he should go to college.)

Dr. Bill Bass is a forensic anthropologist and founder of the farm.  Along with Jon Jefferson, they have written two non-fiction books about murders which were solved and about answers found to other death-related mysteries  They are "Death's Acre" and "Beyond the Body Farm."  The first is on my growing list of books to read, and the second I listened to just a month ago.  Well written with an easy going style, the stories were very entertaining.

For instance, in one case the victim was attacked and had died in a cold bathroom in his house.  Knowing how different temperatures affect the rate of decomposition, and what that rate is, they were able to prove how long he had been dead and thus help convict the killer.  In another case, when a body was found in a burned out car, they surprisingly found that the insects that were on the body told a very different story than was imagined at first glance.  These blow flies go through their life stage in a very predictable manner.  It takes 14 days to go from egg to larvae to adult fly.  The larvae that was found under the body was charred, and they could prove that he had been dead about 10 days before the car was set on fire.

Dead bodies leave behind so much evidence,  Among other things, smell is one.

"Human remains dogs are distinct from the dogs that search for escaped felons and the dogs that search for whole cadavers.  They are trained to alert their owners when they detect the specific scents of decomposed human tissue....They can detect the lingering scent molecules of a decomposing body up to fourteen months after the killer lugged it away."

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Body snatching

One of the most fascinating books I have read in the past five or ten years has been "Stiff" by Mary Roach.  When I first brought it home, my husband was surprised and wondered why I had chosen to check this book out.  It seemed to be a little morbid-looking.  The front cover of the book has a picture of the bottom of two feet with the title "Stiff" on a toe tag.  It is about the "Curious Lives of Human Cadavers."  I don't remember who recommended it to me, but it was on my list of books to read.

My first time through the book was very educational and interesting.  Now I am going through it again to write this blog, and it is as amazing as I remember it.  The chapters range from body snatching to human crash test dummies.  I didn't find it morbid, but maybe just because I learned so much. 

There was a tradition in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to dissect only executed criminals.  The criminals didn't have a choice.  But the churchgoing masses believed in a literal rising from the grave, and dissection would probably spoil your chances of being resurrected.  Because of this belief no one donated his body to science.  Medical science was confined to the bodies of the criminals.

As the medical schools in America and Britain became more popular, the availability of cadavers remained the same.  Instructors in these schools found themselves backed into a corner.  They needed to come up with corpses or lose their students to anatomy schools in Paris, where there was more of an availability of bodies because unclaimed poor who died in city hospitals could be used. 

Anatomy professors resorted to extreme measures.  It was not uncommon to sneak into the graveyard and dig up a newly dead body to dissect.  This became known as body snatching.  It was distinct from grave robbing, which involved stealing jewels and heirlooms buried with the dead.  Being caught with a dead person's cufflinks was a crime, but being caught with the corpse itself carried no penalty.

It soon became a thriving business.  These body snatchers, or resurrectionists as they were also known, could make a living five to ten times greater than an unskilled laborer.  They wouldn't dig up the entire grave, just the top end of it, break the lid of the coffin, grab the body, and be done in under an hour.  Soon, people with money went to the trouble of making the graves harder and harder to break into, and poorer people were the ones whose bodies ended up on the dissection table.  Years later, this would have a devastating effect on children.

There is an organ in the upper chest, below the thyroid gland, called the thymus.  It was not understood to be a specialized organ of the immune system until 1961.  Before then, there were many ideas about its usefulness in the human body.  From the place where emotions were stored to an organ for saving room for growing lungs.  Many thought there was no functional importance to it.

In the early 1900's, when autopsies were performed on babies who were healthy and had unexpectedly died  (later called SIDS) it was noticed that the size of the thymus was larger than it should be.  It was believed that this was the cause of death, since no other reason could be found.   In 1920, the practice of  radiation on babies and children was begun on those whose thymus showed "an enlargement" through x-ray technology..  The thymus would shrink and parents and physicians were sure the right decision had been made.

In a 1945 text book, Dr. John Caffey, MD, was quoted as saying that irradiation was useless and dangerous.  The practice was mostly discontinued by 1960, though in some places it didn't end until into the 1970s.

The bottom line is that 20,000 to 30,000 deaths were caused from radiation-induced cancers.  Many were thyroid cancer and leukemia.  Later it was discovered that the thymus in these children was not overly large. Some of the information in the medical community had been gathered from these body-snatched corpses and was, in some cases, bad information.  The people were poor and often malnourished, and the size of the thymus in those bodies was smaller than it should have been. 

Now you have heard something interesting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Unlucky Max Planck/Marie Curie

Once again I have checked out too many books at the library.  So many seem to reach out and grab me and beg to be taken home.  Once again they are due, and cannot be renewed another time.  So I am skimming my way through a book called "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.  I have a few things to share.

In 1900, while a theoretical physicist at the University of Berlin, and at the "somewhat advanced age of forty-two," Max Planck unveiled a new quantum theory.  For those of you who are not into physics, just trust me that the important part to know is that this theory would lay the foundation for modern physics.  When Max Planck published his quantum theory in Germany, it ended up in the same publication, same issue as a paper by Einstein on the physics of fluids in drinking straws.  Hmmm.

But Planck was often unlucky in his life.

"His beloved first wife died early, in 1909, and the younger of his two sons was killed in the First World War.  He also had twin daughters whom he adored.  One died giving birth.  The surviving twin went to look after the baby and fell in love with her sister's husband.  They married and two years later she died in childbirth.  In 1944, when Planck was eighty-five, an Allied bomb fell on his house and he lost everything -- papers, diaries, a lifetime of accumulations.  The following year his surviving son was caught in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and executed."

Now on  the next story.  In 1896, Henri Becquerel in Paris left some uranium salts on a wrapped photographic plate in a drawer.  Some time later, he was surprised to find that the salts had burned an impression in it, as if the plate had been exposed to light.

He turned the matter over to a graduate student for investigation.  Marie Curie had recently immigrated from Poland.  She and her new husband, Pierre, found that these rocks, and others, poured out constant, high amounts of energy.  Marie dubbed the effect "radioactivity."  In the process of their work, the Curies found two new elements.  One they named polonium in honor of her native country, and the other was radium.  In 1903 the Curies and Becquerel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Marie Curie would receive a second Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911.  Her oldest daughter, Irene, would be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935, the year after her mother's death.

Radiation is what killed Marie.  She died of leukemia.  Radiation is so harmful and long lasting that even now her papers from the 1890's -- and her cookbooks -- are too dangerous to handle.  Her lab books are kept in lead-lined boxes and those who wish to see them must first dress in protective clothing.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream is a warm ocean current in the Atlantic Ocean.  It begins in the Gulf of Mexico and heads north along the coast of the United States.  It then "makes a sharp right turn toward Europe as it passes Cape Cod."  This quirky description of its path is from the book "The Invention of Air" by Steven Johnson.

The Gulf Stream was first described by Ponce de León in the early 16th century.  The first precise measurement came because of a complaint about the postal system.

In 1769, the Customs Board in Boston made a formal complaint to the British Treasury about the speed of letters arriving from England.  People had noticed that letters going from America to Europe would arrive quicker than the letters going in the opposite direction, and were unhappy about it.  Benjamin Franklin, who was the deputy postmaster general for North America, happened to be in London at the time.  The British authorities brought the complaint to his attention. 

It was a lucky day.  Franklin would turn that postal mystery into one of the great scientific breakthroughs of his career. 

When he was twenty years old, he was traveling back from London, and recorded notes in his journal about the "strange prevalence of gulph weed in the waters of the North Atlantic."  Over the years, he had noticed that passage westward across the Atlantic was slower.  Then, in a letter in 1762 he wrote of the way "the waters mov'd away from the North American Coast towards the coasts of Spain."  He called that flow the "gulph stream."

So when the British Treasury came to him with the complaint of the slow mail delivery, Franklin was quick to suspect the "gulph stream."  He consulted with a seasoned New England mariner, Timothy Folger, and together they prepared a map of the Gulf Stream.  The Folger/Franklin map was the first known chart of the trajectory of the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic, but it was based only on the experience of New England whalers.  In 1775, Franklin took measurements of the temperature of the water along the way as he journeyed from England to America.  He found a wide but shallow river of warm water, often with the weeds from tropical regions. 

Who would have thought that slow mail and science would have anything to do with each other?

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Giant marsupials (animals with a pouch)

There is an interesting podcast entitled "Dr. Karl's Great Moments in Science" that I was listening to the other day.  He was talking about spotted hyena's and their character traits. One ability they have is to break bones easily with their strong jaws.

He referenced a paper written by Stephen Wroe from the University of Sydney. The paper is called Bite Club and it compared animals of all sizes to their bite force quotient.  He wanted to know which animal could bite down the hardest compared with their body size.

Wroe studied mammals and marsupials, both alive and extinct.  He found that marsupials have a greater bite force quotient, and it was also higher in those animals who consistently attacked animals bigger than themselves .

"The spotted hyena scored 117 on the bite-o-meter, only slightly ahead of the lion at 112, but behind the tiger (127), the African hunting dog (142) and well behind the Tasmanian devil at 181. The all-time winner was the now-extinct Australian marsupial lion at 196."

That made me curious about marsupials.  I had never heard of a marsupial lion.  Here are some facts I learned.

The marsupial lion lived in Australia tens of thousands of years ago.  One complete and seven nearly complete skeletons were found in limestone caves on Australia's Nullabor Plain in 2002.  The animals would have been  6 1/2 feet long and would have weighed up to 285 pounds!  Other extinct animals, including carnivorous kangaroos and a giant wallaby, were also found.  If you would like to read the story, go here.

In South America there lived a marsupial saber tooth cat. The scientific name is thylacosmilus.  Here is a picture of a skull.

The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger or marsupial wolf, is the largest carnivorous marsupial of recent times and lived into the 20th century in Australia.  Film footage of this animal can be found here.  The last captive thylacine died in 1936.

The largest marsupial that ever lived, the diprotodon, was not carnivorous, but rather fed on trees and shrubs.  It lived in Australia also and is now extinct.  Standing on all four feet, it's shoulder height was up to 5 ft. 7 in.  That is my height, so imagining the size of one of these is easy.  They were ten feet from nose to tail. The males weighed up to 5,500 pounds, which is slightly larger than a white rhino. They looked a little like a rhino without a horn except it had hair like a horse. It is believed to have the pouch facing backwards like a wombat, instead of forward like a kangaroo.

One more interesting marsupial I found was a giant marsupial frog.  It is not a mammal, but has a pouch on its back where their eggs are stored until it is time for them to hatch.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The last of "Bury the Chains"

The island of St. Dominque, owned by the French, had the largest slave population in the Caribbean.  With half of a million slaves, they far outnumbered the forty thousand whites who lived there.  It was "the crown jewel of all European colonies anywhere."  It produced more than 30 percent of the world's sugar and more than half its coffee, as well as cotton and other crops.

In 1791 there was a revolt.  The slaves had been planning in secret to all rise up at the same time.  Drumbeats were the signal.  For miles around, everything was destroyed by fire, machetes, and pruning hooks.  The French soldiers responded quickly.  There was terrible brutality from both sides. Pleas of help were answered with arms and ammunition from Britain.

In the 1790's, France was in turmoil.  The revolution there had claimed the lives of many in the ruling classes, including King Louis XVI who lost his head by the guillotine on January 21, 1793.  The revolution spilled over the English Channel as France declared war on England on February 1.

With war on the minds of the people, the abolition movement came to an end for the time being.  The book calls it the "Bleak Decade."  During this time Clarkson and Wilberforce both married.  Slavery increased and more West India docks were built in London.

"War fever seemed to wrap slavery tightly in the British flag, as the country's most popular military hero, Lord Nelson, declared that he would battle any threat to 'our West Indian possessions ... while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.'"

When I read this quote, I was astonished that Lord Nelson had made this comment that he would "battle. . . .  while I have an arm to fight in their defence...."  My surprise came because of what happened to Lord Nelson just a few years later.  He lost his right arm in battle in 1797.  There is some kind of poetic justice or irony here.

After the war broke out between Britain and France, the British wanted St. Dominque for themselves.  It would increase, by a large margin, their numbers of sugar and coffee plantations.  The British sent ships and soldiers to fight.  But, "pomp triumphed over common sense, and successive shiploads of fresh troops disembarked in tight-fitting red uniforms of heavy wool, made for fighting on the snowy plains of northern Europe.  The army refused to abandon the famous red coat, or the regulation flannel underwear.  In the intense, humid heat, the layers of flannel and wool became drenched in sweat, creating a covering as thick and clammy as a modern surfer's wetsuit and bringing on heat stroke."

By 1798, it was clear that the British were fighting a losing battle.  In Edmund Burke's words, "it was like fighting to conquer a cemetery."  The British withdrew.  In 1802, the French sent an initial thirty-five thousand men to recapture St. Dominque.  After a twenty-two month attempt to retake the colony, France had lost more than fifty thousand men.  Napoleon suffered more casualties in St. Dominque than he would at Waterloo.  Because of this great loss of lives and money, he decided to sell a great tract of land to the United States for a much needed $15 million. Yes, that's the one.  The Louisiana Purchase.

On January 1, 1804, after the only successful slave revolt in history, St. Dominque became Haiti, the first independent black state in the new world.

Slavery, on paper, was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, but because of technicalities, the real triumph came on August 1, 1838 when nearly 800,000 men, women, and children finally became totally free.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Happy stories from "Bury the Chains"

The Sierra Leone Company in England, known as The Company among its associates, was striving to establish a colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone, on the continent of Africa.  One problem was that it was an active place for the capturing and selling of slaves.  The Company was undaunted, however, and a colony was begun with both whites and blacks living side by side.  There were some troubles, but here are three sweet stories from that time.

In 1792, Thomas Clarkson's younger brother, John, escorted more than 1,100 former slaves from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Sierra Leone.  These stories from the book really touched me as I imagined what it would be like for them to return to the place where their slavery began.  This is a direct quote from the book.

"The immigrants Clarkson accompanied to Sierra Leone from Canada included several who had been taken into slavery from this very river mouth.  Thirty-year-old Frank Peters, a former slave in South Carolina, found the precise spot were he had been captured  to be sold to an American slave ship, fifteen years before. Then one day, in the words of a Company official, an elderly local woman showed 'very peculiar emotions' when she saw Peters; 'she ran up to him and embraced him: she proved to be his own mother.'  He resettled for a time in his own village.

"John Gordon, a lay Methodist leader in North America, had been sold from Bance Island when he was about fifteen.  Four years after arriving back in Sierra Leone, he would meet the man who kidnapped him.  He gave his captor a present and told him, 'Your thoughts were evil, but God meant it for good -- I now know God and Christ.'

Another black settler, Martha Webb, recognized her mother in a chain of slaves being led into captivity and, with a gift of wine, persuaded a local chief to let her go."

Now you have heard something interesting.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tidbits from "Bury the Chains"

Here are more odds and ends from the book, "Bury the Chains" by Adam Hochschild.

As Thomas Clarkson and his committee in Great Britain worked toward freedom for slaves, they knew that turning the tide of public opinion was crucial.  It was a great day when they were able to add Josiah Wedgwood, the famous pottery designer and manufacturer, and the maternal grandfather of Charles Darwin, to the committee.  He brought with him not only money, but also a talent for publicity and marketing.  After he was made Potter to the Queen, for example, he quickly sold a line of china he called Queensware. 

Wedgwood arranged for one of his craftsmen to design a seal for stamping the wax used to close envelopes.
It shows a kneeling slave with the words: "Am I not a man and a brother" inscribed around the figure.  It was reproduced everywhere "from books and leaflets to snuffboxes and cufflinks." Several ladies wore them as bracelets and as ornaments in their hair.  It became the equivalent of the buttons we wear for political campaigns.

This certainly raised awareness on the question of the slave trade.

Wilberforce was not a big man.  Just 5' 4" tall, he was prone to bad health.  The debates in Parliament were sometimes postponed as he battled illness.  Once, when he was particularly sick, his weight plummeted to 76 pounds!

In April 1791, during a debate on the House floor, William Wilberforce emphatically insisted  that ending the trade of slaves would not hurt, but rather help, the plantation economy.  Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who was a Member of Parliament (MP), responded that "the Africans themselves had no objection to the trade."

Unbelievable.  Simply astounding.

People all over England boycotted slave-grown sugar.  In response, the pro-slavery side wrote a pamphlet saying that sugar "is a mild, nutritious, vegetable substance; possessing a power of correcting the ill effects arising from a too free use of animal food."

Wouldn't that be interesting to see what their food pyramid looked like?  I could buy into that one.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


An ant colony functions together as a group in an interesting way.  There is a queen, but her only job is to lay eggs.  That's all she does.  She does not give directions.  There is no ant that is in charge.  Yet somehow the group is efficient in functioning with all the jobs that are required to make it run well.  This is a great example of the science of emergence: the individuals of a group coming together without formal organization and creating something as a whole.

In Southeast Asia, there are areas where fireflies live in trees along river banks.  They turn their lights off and on in synchrony.  All on, then all off.  No one in charge.  No detectable reason.  It has been described as rows of Christmas trees all lit up.  Then darkness.  Then the lights.
Synchronous Display of male fireflies in a "firefly tree" in Southeast Asia
Scientific American, May 1976

John Buck, a researcher, caught many of these fireflies and took them to his hotel room.  At first, they flashed randomly.  After a little while, they started grouping in twos and threes and would synchronize their flashing in these little groups.  Then slowly all the groups merged a few at a time until the whole room was flashing together.

In 1906, Sir Francis Galton (Charles Darwin's cousin) attended a fair and stumbled upon a contest being held.  An ox was on display, and the people were supposed to guess the weight of the animal after it was slaughtered and dressed.  Nearly 800 guesses were made, but not one was the exact amount of 1,187 pounds..  Sir Galton asked the man running the contest if he could have the papers. He took them, did the math, and found that the average weight that the crowd had guessed was one pound off - 1,188 pounds!

Now there are experiments at colleges all over the United States.  A professor, usually a psychology professor, will put a bowl of jelly beans in front of the class and ask the students to guess the number of jelly beans.  Over and over again, there will not be one who guesses correctly, but often the class as a whole, when averaged out, will guess the correct number.  It would be a fun experiment to try, I think.

Google became the giant of search engines using this idea that a group of people as a whole can be more accurate than a single person.  They decided that every time someone linked to a web page, it was counted as a vote.  Now when you wonder who decided what page should come up first in a search, the answer is everybody and nobody.  It is another example of emergence.

For the full WNYC RadioLab podcast, go here.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Amazing Grace

One of my most favorite movies is "Amazing Grace."  It is the story of the end of the slave trade in England.  I always watch it with subtitles so that I can soak up every bit.  It always amazes me how courageous some people are.  I wish I were courageous.

There is a book that tells the story of two of the men, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, in more detail than the movie does.  It is "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves" by Adam Hochschild.  I am really loving it.

Here is a story from the book.  The blog is a little long, but well worth the read.

In 1783 in England, the Quakers were the only group of people openly opposed to slavery.  But they were on the fringe of society, not the social elite. Their efforts were mostly ignored.  They were conspicuously different.  For instance, in deference to God, Quaker men would uncover their heads when preaching or praying, but would never doff their hats to a mere mortal, even to royalty.

In that year, there was an insurance fraud case that came to trial.  It was brought to court because the insurance company didn't want to pay for the 133 slaves that had been thrown overboard while they were still alive as the ship, the Zong, crossed the Atlantic Ocean.  Slaves were thought of as property, so this was not a case of murder.  The captain had reported that they were low on water and had to dispose of the sick ones so the others would survive.  His first mate testified in court that this was not true.  He was just loosing too much money because of many delays and knew he could make money with the insurance.

Granville Sharp was a prominent man who was fighting slavery, and wrote angry letters about this court case.  Most of these letters were ignored, but directly or indirectly the news reached a prominent Anglican clergyman, Dr. Peter Peckard.  The next year Dr. Peckard became vice-chancellor - the equivalent of an American university president - of Cambridge University.  In 1785 he set as the topic for Cambridge's most prestigious Latin essay contest the question "Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?"

One of those who entered the contest was twenty-five-year-old divinity student, Thomas Clarkson.  He was very ambitious and worked hard to win that essay.  He read all he could, managed to get access to the papers of a slave merchant who had recently died, and sought out several people who had witnessed slavery firsthand.

His essay won first prize. Afterward, he took the prize money and headed to London.  As he rode he thought on that essay and at one point, he got off his horse, and "sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end."

Only gradually did it dawn on him that he was that person.

After arriving in London, the Quakers sought him out.  They were aware of his essay, and were happy to have another person join in the antislavery fight. In May 1787, a dozen men started a planning committee.  Nine Quakers and three Anglicans, including Clarkson and Granville Sharp.

They decided to try and stop the slave trade first (the buying and selling of slaves) and fight for emancipation later.

Clarkson spent sixty years in the struggle for freedom.  At both his funeral procession and the overflowing church where the service was held, the mourners included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from long-sacred custom.

They removed their hats.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


The book "Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson is about a terrible cholera outbreak in 1854 in London. Hundreds of people died in a very short period of time in a small neighborhood.  Cholera is an intestinal disease that is spread through unsanitary waste systems. It was an interesting book describing how the problem was solved. It was traced back to one water pump in the neighborhood. 

I love indoor plumbing.

Here is an especially fascinating detail in the book that really caught my attention.

The search for unpolluted drinking water is as old as civilization itself.  As soon as there were mass human settlements, waterborne diseases like dysentery became a crucial problem.  For much of history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply.  It was to drink alcohol. In a community lacking pure water supplies, the closest thing to "pure" fluid was alcohol.  Whatever health risks were posed by beer (and later wine) in the early days, were more than offset by alcohol's antibacterial properties.  Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties.

Alcohol is a deadly poison and notoriously addictive.  To digest large quantities of it, your body needs to increase the production of certain enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenases.  Many living in rural areas lacked that ability, and were genetically unable to "hold their liquor."  Many of these died childless at an early age, either from alcohol abuse or from waterborne diseases.

Over generations, the gene pool became dominated by those who could drink beer on a regular basis.  Most of the world's population today is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol.

The descendants of hunter-gatherers - like many Native Americans or Australian Aborigines - were never forced through this genetic bottleneck, and today they show higher rates of alcoholism than the general population.

This same genetic tolerance story is true of lactose, which went from a rare genetic trait to the mainstream among the descendants of the herders, thanks to the domestication of livestock.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Tarantula silk

Spiders can produce seven different types of silk.  Not every spider has every kind, but every male has at least three and every female has at least four, the extra one being for egg sacs.  Here are the types.
     *swathing silk (wrapping prey)
     *web silk (elastic and sticky for catching prey)
     *draglines (connects spider to web as a safety line - strongest silk)
     *parachuting (dispersal of young or to find a new area for food - silk is released and caught by wind)
     *shelters (burrows or nests)
     *egg sacs
     *mating (male spiders weave sperm webs on which they deposit sperm and subsequently transfer it to their front palps, ready for placing on a females genital organs.  Spiders usually have two palps. They are located on the front and look like tiny claws or thick antennae.  They are a sensory organ.)

Not every spider spins a web. Those who do spin webs know where to walk to avoid the sticky parts.  Webs are made from protein, which costs much for the body to produce.  In anticipation of spinning a new web, a spider will eat the old one and recycle that protein.  Very efficient in terms of energy.

Now there is another type of silk that has been found..  The researchers, led by Stanislav Gorb of the Max-Planck-Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, coaxed zebra tarantulas to walk up a piece of vertical glass.  When the spider began to slip, it would send out strands of silk from nozzles at the ends of all eight
legs.  These strands stopped the spider's descent, leaving visible silk that allowed it to adhere to the glass for more than twenty minutes.

The story is detailed in the Sept. 28, 2006 issue of the journal Nature.

Now scientists want to know more about this newly-found silk.  How is it related to the other known types? Did all spiders once have this ability in their feet?
Nexia Biotechnologies scientists in Canada took a spider gene that is used for silk production, injected it into a single cell of a goat egg, and produced a goat named Willow.  Then they made a whole herd of goats with this spider silk gene.  The milk that Willow and the other goats produced had the same proteins that spider silk has.  Using that protein, they produced a material they call BioSteel.  It could be used in medical and micro-electronic applications.  Bullet-proof vests are also a possibility. BioSteel has been demonstrated to be stronger and lighter than steel or Kevlar. But Nexia Biotechnologies has failed as a company.  In 2006 they were left with a herd of  40 "franken-goats", some patents, and some cash.  You can go here to read the publication.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Broken Windows theory

The Broken Windows theory was first published in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1982 and talked about in the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell where I read about it. It was written by James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at Harvard, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist.  This theory suggests crime is the inevitable result of disorder.  If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people will conclude that no one cares.  Soon more windows will be broken and the disorder will spread to the street.

In the mid-1980s, Kelling was hired by the NY Transit Authority as a consultant, and he urged them to put the Broken Windows theory into practice.  They agreed, and hired David Gunn to oversee a multibillion-dollar rebuilding of the subway system.  Many people thought that Gunn should not worry about the graffiti. "Worrying about graffiti at a time when the entire system was close to collapse seems as pointless as scrubbing the decks of the Titanic as it headed toward the icebergs."

But Gunn didn't listen.  The cars on the subway were reclaimed one at a time.  Graffiti was either painted over or cleaned with solvent as soon as possible.  "Dirty" cars with graffiti still on them were never to be mixed with "clean" cars.  The idea was to send a strong message to the vandals.

The cleanup took from 1984 to 1990.  At that point, the Transit Authority hired William Bratton to head the transit police, and the second part of the reclamation of the subway began.  Bratton believed in the Broken Windows theory.  His first step as police chief seemed impractical.  With felonies on the subway system at an all-time high, Bratton decided to crack down on fare-beaters.  He believed they were like the graffiti, inviting bigger crimes.  Up until this time, the transit police didn't feel that fighting over a $1.25 fare was worth it, especially when more serious crimes were happening on the platform and on the trains.

Bratton picked stations where fare-beating was the biggest problem, and put as many as ten policemen in plain clothes at the turnstiles.  The team would nab fare-beaters one-by-one, handcuff them, and leave them standing on the platform until they had a "full catch."  The idea was to signal, as publicly as possible, that the police were serious on cracking down.  Checks were run on all those arrested.  One of seven had outstanding warrants for previous crimes, and one in twenty was carrying a weapon of some sort.  Bratton writes, "For the cops it was a bonanza.  Every arrest was like opening a box of Cracker Jack. Got a gun? Got a knife? Got a warrant? Do we have a murderer here? After a while the bad guys wised up and began to leave their weapons home and pay their fares."

In 1994 Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor and appointed Bratton to the NYC Police Department.  He applied the same strategies to the city at large.  His officers cracked down on quality-of-life crimes: on the "squeegee men" who came up to drivers at NYC intersections and demanded money for washing car windows, on public drunkenness, on public urination, and on relatively minor damage to property.  When crime began to fall in the city - as quickly and dramatically as it had in the subways - Bratton and Giuliani pointed to the same cause.  Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes, they said, were tipping points for violent crimes.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Age, brain function and focus

Many studies confirm that those who lead mentally active lives have better brain function.

"The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge states that we are less likely to get Alzheimer's disease or dementia under these conditions:
1. the more education we have
2. the more socially and physically active we are
3. the more we participate in mentally stimulating activities.

Not all activities are equal.  Those that involve genuine concentration -- studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading, dancing -- are those associated with a lower risk of dementia. These studies stop short of proving that we can prevent Alzheimer's disease with brain activities. The most that can be said at the moment is that it seems very promising.

Nothing speeds brain atrophy more than the lack of stimulation. It is better to continually learn new things, which plays a role in being happy and healthy in old age.  Finding something one has always wanted to do is best, because it will be highly motivational, which is crucial.  David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, taught himself ancient Greek in old age to master the classics in the original.  At ninety, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

At seventy-eight, Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals.  This last one I am especially grateful for.

When Pablo Casals, the cellist, was ninety-one years old, he was approached by a student who asked, "Master, why do you continue to practice?" Casals replied, "Because I am making progress."

Neuroplasticity is the ability for our brains to change.  They are always changing.  Michael Merzenich, a neuroplastician, has shown how these brain-processing areas transform.  He claims that plasticity exists from the cradle to the grave, and that radical improvements in how we learn, think, perceive and remember are possible even in the elderly.

These claims are from a man who has made a name for himself in this area of science.  Early in his career, he and his group developed the most commonly used design for the cochlear implant, a device to help congenitally deaf children to hear. He also developed Fast ForWord, which is disguised as a game for children, but has helped hundreds of thousands of learning-disabled students improve their ability to learn, understand, and retain that knowledge.

When we learn, we obviously increase what we know.  But Merzenich has shown that we can also change the structure of the brain itself and increase its capacity to learn.  Unlike a computer, the brain is constantly adapting itself.  It doesn't just learn, it is always learning to learn.  Our brain is not a vessel to fill, but more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise.

In numerous experiments, Merzenich discovered that paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change.  When we perform tasks automatically, without paying attention, we change our brain maps, but the changes do not last.  We often praise the "ability to multitask."  While we do learn when we divide our attention, this kind of attention doesn't lead to abiding change in our brain maps. It takes focused attention to make those long-term changes.

So when doing homework, the question might be, "How long do I want to retain this knowledge?" If the answer is: just long enough to pass the test, then the distractions don't really matter.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mental practice

From the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" is this story about Alvaro Pascual-Leone, who is a neuroscientist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He conducted an imagining experiment in his lab.  He taught two groups of people, who had never studied piano, a sequence of notes.  He showed them which fingers to move and let them hear the notes as they were played.  Then one group sat in front of an electric piano keyboard for two hours a day for five days and imagined playing the sequence and hearing it played.  The other group actually played the music two hours a day for five days.

Then the groups were asked to play as a computer measured their accuracy.  Both groups learned the sequence, and both showed similar brain changes.  By the end of the fifth day, the changes in motor signals to the muscles were the same in both groups. And on this  fifth day, the players who had imagined were as accurate playing the notes as the actual players had been on their third day.  All it took was one session lasting 2 hours to make them as accurate as the playing group.

Clearly, mental practice has merit. 
One of the most advanced forms of mental practice is "mental chess," played without a board or pieces. The players imagine the board and the play, keeping track of the positions.

Anatoly Sharansky, a Soviet human rights activist, spent nine years in prison.  Four hundred days of this time was spent in solitary confinement in freezing, darkened 5X6 foot punishment cells.  Prisoners in isolation often fall apart mentally because the use-it-or-lose-it brain needs external stimulation. During this extended period of solitary, Sharansky played mental chess for months on end, playing both black and white, from opposite perspectives.  He once said, half joking, that he kept at chess thinking he might as well use the opportunity to become the world champion.

After he was released, he became a cabinet minister in Israel.  When the world champion, Garry Kasparov, played against the prime minister and leaders of the cabinet, he beat all of them except Sharansky.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Phantom limbs

The Sherlock Holmes of modern neurology is a man from India named V. S. Ramachandran.  He believes that individual cases in medicine have much to contribute to science.  He says, "Imagine I were to present a pig to a skeptical scientist, insisting it could speak English, then waved my hand, and the pig spoke English.  Would it really make sense for the skeptic to argue 'But that is just one pig, Ramachandran.  Show me another, and I might believe you!' "

This next amazing story is another from the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, M.D. 

The book explains how scientists can map our brain and tell what part of the brain is driving different body functions.  It has been proven that "use it or lose it" rules the brain.  That is why when a skill in music or a second language, for instance, is not used, the brain does not sit idle in that part of the brain map, but assigns it to something else.Another example is when someone loses their sight and their other senses become stronger and sharper.  It is because that part of the brain that used to be used for sight is now assigned to help with the other senses.

But there is a downside, too.  It is called "phantom pain."

Lord Nelson, the British admiral, lost his right arm in 1797. Soon afterward, he vividly began to experience the presence of his arm, a phantom limb that he could feel but not see.  "Nelson concluded that its presence was 'direct evidence for the existence of the soul,' reasoning that if an arm can exist after being removed, so then might the whole person exist after the annihilation of the body."

Phantom limbs are troubling because they can have chronic "phantom pain."  How do you remove a pain in a limb that isn't there?

Ramachandran showed how.  Philip, an amputee, came to him for help.  He had been in a motorcycle accident a decade before.  He had been traveling at forty-five miles per hour and in the accident all the nerves leading from his left hand and arm to his spine were torn out.  Though his arm was still attached to his body, it was worse than useless to him.  Eventually it was amputated.  He had terrible phantom pain in his phantom elbow, and he felt that if he could move it, the pain would be relieved.  But it was "frozen."

Ramachandran constructed a box with a mirror in the middle, splitting the box into two compartments.  He had Philip put his good arm into the box and told him to imagine putting his phantom arm into the other side.  By looking into the mirror and watching his good hand move, he began to "see" in the mirror his "phantom" hand move as well.  He was able to "stretch" his arm and relieve the pain.  He took the box home, and used it for ten minutes a day.

After four weeks, his brain had rewired and not only was his phantom arm permanently unfrozen, but it was gone.

Ramachandran, the neurological illusionist, had become the first physician to perform a seemingly impossible operation: the successful amputation of a phantom limb.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sea mammals and fresh water

Have you ever wondered if sea mammals drink sea water from the ocean?  Or do they require fresh water to survive?

According to Dr. Sara Iverson, an expert in marine physiology and a Professor of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, they do require fresh water, but they get it in a different way than we do.  

There are basically three ways to obtain water.  Drink it directly, get it from the water content in the food one eats, or the body produces it as food is metabolized (broken apart).  Marine mammals rely mostly on these last two ways to get their water.

Piscivores, those who live on eating fish, can acquire all of their water needs through their food, since fish have a high water content.  When they swallow fish as they eat, they do swallow some sea water.  Their kidneys are much more complex than the kidneys of a human, and they are able to expel these high amounts of salt and keep a correct chemical balance.

Some mammals, like the grey seal, go through periods of expected fasting.  When they give birth, it is in a place where they cannot eat or drink.  To get ready for this event, they bulk up.  While they are giving birth and then nursing for about 16 days, their bodies metabolize this stored fat.  During metabolism, the conversion of one gram of fat produces 1.07 grams of water!

To listen to this story, go here. It is the fourth story of the bunch.
In a related story, black bears hibernate for four months.  During this time, it does not eat or drink, nor does it urinate nor defecate.  The bears get enough water to remain healthy as they metabolize their fat. And then it emerges four months later with its blood chemicals balanced and without losing any protein.

In preparation for this hibernation, they start gorging in the summer on carbohydrate-rich foods and can gain 30 pounds a week.

Other hibernating animals wake every few days to eat and pass wastes, but black bears don't rouse the entire time they are hibernating unless disturbed.

This next bit is a little off topic, but while I was double checking the story above, I ran across this funny, true story.

"The heart rate, which is usually between 40 and 50 beats per minute while asleep during the summer, drops to around 8 beats per minute while hibernating.
"Black bears keep their heads and torsos warm enough that they can wake if disturbed, though some may take awhile to do so. In a 1981 article in Natural History, Rogers told of the time he accidentally fell onto a six-year-old female in her den. Even though her cub bawled, she didn't wake up for at least eight minutes. On the other hand, some individuals can revive disconcertingly quickly. Rogers again:
"On January 8, 1972, I tried to hear the heartbeat of a soundly sleeping five-year-old female by pressing my ear against her chest. I could hear nothing. Either the heart was beating so weakly that I could not hear it, or it was beating so slowly I didn't recognize it. After about two minutes, though, I suddenly heard a strong, rapid heartbeat. The bear was waking up. Within a few seconds she lifted her head as I tried to squeeze backward through the den entrance. Outside, I could still hear the heartbeat, which I timed (after checking to make sure it wasn't my own) at approximately 175 beats per minute."
Now you've heard something interesting.