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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.