A Sticky Sixtieth Anniversary
After dealing with the deepest reaches of cosmology last week, I
ended by promising to get down to earth this week. Then I saw
the cover of the April issue of Smithsonian magazine and was
tempted to renege on my promise. On the cover was a photo or
illustration of a domed observatory with a laser beam being
emitted into the heavens. The text on the cover is “Illuminating
Black Holes” and “Astronomers aim lasers at the most
mysterious objects in the universe”. Well, I don’t know about
you, but to me that implies that the laser beam will somehow
light up a black hole.
Being the astute scientist that I am, I thought this to be a
ridiculous effort for at least two reasons. First, how do you light
up a black hole? And second, if you can do that it will take the
laser beam thousands of years to reach our own black hole in the
center of our Milky Way galaxy and then thousands of years for
the vision of the lit-up black hole to travel back to Earth!
However, after reading the article, I find that the laser beam is
only being used to create a sort of artificial star as a tool to
correct for the distortions of light caused by our atmosphere, a
technique we’ve discussed before. The correction of these
distortions permits images achieved by ground-based telescopes
to be as clear as those from the Hubble or other orbiting
telescopes. The “illumination” of a black hole is actually more
precise and clearer pictures of what’s happening around the hole.
Then there was the news that astronomers using spectroscopic
techniques have discovered methane and water on or surrounding
one of the planets orbiting another star in our solar system. No
likelihood of life on that planet but hey, methane and water spell
organic chemistry possibilities. Closer to home, a paper in the
March 21 issue of Science reports evidence that Saturn’s planet
Titan has an ocean of water buried tens of miles below its
surface. Thus Titan joins Europa in having such deep bodies of
water. However, I am resisting the temptation to give these
developments the space they deserve until a later date, keeping in
my mind last week’s promise.
So, down here on Earth, I find myself wondering if in the distant
past I was guilty of a crime that could have landed me in the
slammer. Back in 1979, I gave an invited talk at a meeting in
Stuttgart at one of Germany’s Max Planck Institutes. It’s quite
possible that I may have allowed myself to be introduced as Dr.
Bortrum (if so, I used my real name, not the Bortrum pen name).
A number of news items such as one in the March 14 issue of
Science made me wonder if I have been guilty of a serious crime.
It seems that a number of Max Planck directors have been
accused of “Titelmissbrauch”, a crime punishable by up to a year
Ian Baldwin, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical
Ecology, was one of those accused and says that after being
apprised of his “crime” he spent the weekend wondering whom
he had killed! Apparently, in Germany only those receiving their
doctorates in Germany are allowed to use “Dr.”, considered a
legal part of a name. On March 6, German authorities decided it
was OK for those such as myself who received doctorates in the
USA to use the title. However, the case against Baldwin was
still pending. I’m assuming that, with the name Ian Baldwin, he
may be from the UK? At any rate, I’m relieved that I can
probably return to Germany without fear of prosecution.
Perhaps you can sense from this potpourri of subjects that, with
my continued care giving duties following my wife’s fall and
fractured vertebra, I’m desperate for material to fill this column.
So, another down-to-earth bit. Every day for the past four and a
half years since my kidney cancer operation, I’ve used Velcro to
secure around my upper torso an abdominal binder. When Dr.
Carl Olsson, at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York,
removed my tumor and part of a kidney he also removed a rib.
(Last week, we received a letter from Dr. Olsson that he is
leaving Columbia.) I’m attributing the resulting marked bulge
on my right side which, although I’m assured it isn’t a hernia,
certainly looks and feels like one. The binder reduces the bulge
to some degree. The past few months, I’ve also had daily tussles
with Velcro in securing the back brace around my wife.
Now I find in the April issue of National Geographic an article
by Tom Mueller titled “Biomimetics- design by nature”.
Biomimetics is essentially the field of studying the designs in
nature and trying to use these studies to come up with new
products or practical solutions to problems in various fields such
as medicine or in the case of Velcro, sticky stuff. This year
happens to be the 60th anniversary of a day in 1948 when the
Swiss engineer George de Mestral went on a hike with his dog.
Picking burs from his pants and his dog’s coat, George found
that the spines on the burs had tiny hooks on their ends. Velcro,
with its hook-and-loop structure, was born.
The Geographic article has a nice scanning electron microscope
photo of Velcro and it looks like a bunch of hooks latching on to
a bunch of spaghetti. We’ve all used Velcro here on Earth but
how can I resist pointing out that it’s also made its way to the
moon and elsewhere in space. Velcro is used in space suits, is
used to hold down loose items that float around in zero gravity,
and, what could be more down to earth, inside space helmets to
scratch the astronaut’s nose.
Allen F. Bortrum