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Some Things Fly By; Others Crash
CHAPTER 99 Space Stuff and a Bit of Biology
The year 2018 is history and good riddance, at least for the Bortrum household. With my wife entering in-home hospice care and my own hospital and rehab stays resulting in my giving up driving and golf, it's difficult to have an optimistic outlook on things. And the antics of that self-proclaimed genius in the White House certainly haven't helped (this comment may lose me some readers).
There was one truly bright spot for us on Christmas day, however. Our son Harry (our Lamb cartoonist) and daughter-in-law Cindy came up from Delaware bringing our granddaughter Dale, who had flown from California. Also present were our grandson Douglas and his girlfriend Lisa while our other son Brian, our S&N Editor, provided most of the nourishment. Our wonderful live-in care-giver Chandra provided a festive decor.
The highlight of the gathering was when Cindy, Dale, Douglas and Lisa went up to my wife's room and serenaded her with Christmas carols. You have to know that these four individuals are not your average singers. Cindy sings in her church choir in Delaware and sang in her church choir here in Jersey. Douglas was stated to have had perfect pitch when he was in high school and a member of the choir. Dale, in addition to be a recognized composer of choral music, sang in the USC choral group that accompanied Andrea Bocelli some years ago in a fund raising concert for Public TV. Finally, Lisa sings in a local chorale and has sung with a choral group that performed abroad in various countries such as Russia. The blend of the four voices and the enthusiasm with which the carols were sung resulted in a truly beautiful concert. In my 91 years, I have enjoyed operas, symphonies, ballets, barbershop concerts and Broadway musicals but this rendering of Christmas carols for my wife made this Christmas the best and most meaningful of my life.
Well, let's get to something scientific. At the end of the year I usually reflect on the more important things that happened in science the past year. Offhand, I probably haven't covered the broad subject as much as I should but one thing has stood out for me in 2018. That is the number of papers and news items pertaining to new methods of treating various diseases and other medical problems. Especially notable have been the number of accounts of working with genes and tinkering with DNA by such means as CRISPR to treat and even cure patients who normally would have succumbed to a given malady. I have written about some of these cases.
The December 21 issue of Science has just come out with its Breakthrough of the Year for 2018 and it is related to what I just mentioned. The breakthrough is not a single thing, but is the work going on in many locations on "Development Cell by Cell". The field is one in which the development of organisms and organs is tracked cell by cell in amazing detail. In such studies not only is the growth of an organism observed microscopically but genes are sequenced in individual cells in both location and in time so researchers can tell when genes turn on or off during different stages of growth of the cells of an organism, The ability to work with single cells or small groups of cells lets workers know what's going on in detail as an organism grows or as a disease develops. While the initial work has been done with animals as zebrafish or nematodes, work is beginning on such things in humans as cancerous tumor development. CRISPR is one of the approaches being used to tag genes so as to be able to follow them as cancer or other diseases develop. Work along these lines is in its infancy and will only expand in the years to come.
All this is on a microscopic scale and the chemistry involved is beyond my feeble 91-year-old brain's ability to understand. For me, it's much easier to comprehend big things, which may explain my enthusiasm for subjects related to space and the universe. For example, in the December 28 (my birthday) issue of The Star-Ledger there was an item by Marcia Dunn of AP on the current travels of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. You will recall that spacecraft made history some time ago when it flew by Pluto, giving us the first good look at that demoted dwarf planet. On New Year's day, the spacecraft will zoom within a mere 2200 miles of Ultima Thule, which is a space rock probably only about 20 miles long and might even be two objects. Being out there in the Kuiper Belt the rock is believed to date all the way back some 4.5 billion years to the origin of our solar system. When New Horizons zips by it, it will be the most distant object ever closely approached by any spacecraft.
Would you believe that. after writing the above paragraph. I was in the bathroom perusing the January/February 2019 issue of the Smithsonian magazine and there was an article by Franz Lidz titled "Great Ball of Fire". The article was on an object from outer space that has been dated at 4.57 billion years, as old or even older than Ultima Thule. The Allende meteorite, believed to have come from the asteroid belt, described in the article as the rubble left over from the formation of our Sun. The meteor came to earth in 1969 as a chunk of rock the size of a car, disintegrating into fragments in a flaming explosion in the vicinity of the Mexican village of Pueblito de Allende south of El Paso, Texas. Based on the ratios of various isotopes, the Allende is thought to be the oldest thing on Earth, older than our planet itself. Microscopic samples of the Allende have been probed for even more microscopic minerals and a number of minerals unknown here on earth have been found. The Smithsonian has a large collection of bits and pieces of the Allende meteorite, having had the foresight to get students in the Allende area to go out and collect debris from the area where the meteor broke up, scattering debris, some as tiny as grains of sand. The article said that students were savvy; they insisted on getting cold drinks for their efforts in the heat down there around the US-Mexican border. Wikipedia, of course, has a good article on the Allende object if you're interested. Incidentally, I just learned from the Smithsonian article that a meteor becomes a meteorite (or meteorites) when it breaks up on entering our atmosphere.
Back to The Star-Ledger. The day before my birthday, I spotted a disturbing headline = "Experts keep eye on meteor cluster" over an article by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post. The article pointed out that a Beta Taurid meteor shower will occur this coming June. Taurid meteor showers occur twice a year but don't get much press because they occur during the day and hence don't light up the sky like other well publicized showers. The somewhat disturbing aspect is that there is speculation that the Tunguska event in Siberia in June of 1908 might have been a Beta Taurid event. You may recall the Tunguska event was the crashing to earth of a large object in Siberia, the result being the flattening of trees over an area of some 800 square miles! Thankfully, no one was killed in the event because it occurred in an area with little or no population. The newspaper article pointed out that nobody has ever been reported killed by any meteor crashing to earth but there were some people injured fairly recently when one came pretty close to crashing down near a city in Russia. So, while it is extremely unlikely you have to worry, the chances of you being hit aren't absolutely zero!
Ok, that should do it on space stuff. But wait! I just got an email from Discover magazine and what do you know? We have a new dwarf planet! Far out! Farout, that's the nickname astronomers have given to the newly discovered pink dwarf planet. When one of the astronomers saw the data he said "far out!". The name stuck. It wasn't too long ago that I reported on The Goblin, another new dwarf planet. It's the same team that found The Goblin that has found Farout. Farout is indeed far out; it's three times farther out than Pluto or 130 times as far as we on Earth are from the sun. The first observation was in Hawaii in November but this month astronomers at a telescope in Chile have also seen Farout. You may recall that I wrote that the orbit of The Goblin was of special interest because it suggested or supported the belief of some astronomers that there is a large planet somewhere out there in the Kuiper belt that is affecting the orbits of at least some dwarf planets way out there in the fringes of our solar system. It's too early to tell if the orbit of Farout adds more support to this conjecture.
I put off posting this column deliberately so I could see if New Horizons had anything to report on Ultima Thule. While waiting, I thought to Google NASA and find out what the power source is on New Horizons. I had the foolish notion that maybe solar cells could be charging a lithium battery. Stupid idea. The power source is 24 pounds of plutonium dioxide! The heat given off by the radioactive decay of the plutonium is converted to electrical energy using a thermoelectric generator material and I'm guessing it might be delivering somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-200 watts as it sailed by Ultima Thule. OK, it's January 1 and I just finished watching on a NASA site the New Horizons mission control group at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab this morning as they got reports from those monitoring the conditions of the various components on the spacecraft after the passage past the space rock. Each of the reports that I heard came back as "green", "nominal" or "great" and was acknowledged with applause or cheers. When the last report came in there was an exuberant outburst with cheering, hugging, laughter and shaking hands. In the midst of it, I heard that the picture they had so far was only three pixels and that the download of all the data would take something like 20 months! How many times have I remarked that a prime characteristic needed by guys and gals involved in space projects is patience! Well, I'm hoping it won't be too long before we know if the body is shaped like a potato or a peanut and whether it is one or two chunks. Now to watch one of my favorite programs, the yearly New Year's concert of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Happy New Year. Next column on or about February 1, 2019, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum