"This is the first in a series of columns dealing either substantially or peripherally with science, scientists, technology, technologies or, to be honest, anything that strikes my fancy." That is how I began my first column, posted May 12, 1999. When I wrote that column, I had no idea I would be doing this for more than ten years. Indeed, to tell the truth, I hadn't really expected to live this long. However, here I am and, by my count, this is my 500th column. Such a milestone naturally puts me in a reflective mood, looking back at past columns and how things have changed over the past decade. I am impressed that all these columns are archived. I just clicked on the archives and was surprised to find 508 columns are listed, not 500. Without going back one by one, I'm assuming that the extra 8 columns are brief notices or other trivia that I didn't consider to be a "column". Or did I mess up in my count? Whatever, as far as I'm concerned, this is my 500th.
Looking back, in May of 1999 there were nine planets orbiting our Sun. Today there are only eight, Pluto having been demoted. In 1999, there were only a few planets known to be orbiting other suns. Today, as we noted a couple weeks ago, there are more than 400. Earlier in 1999, Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial, while his opponent in the previous election, Bob Dole, was making TV commercials for Viagra. My first column, titled "NO, NO, NO", dealt with nitric oxide, NO, and its role in the body. I pointed out that Viagra's effect in regard to erectile dysfunction was thought to be due to increased amounts of NO, which dilates blood vessels. Today, it seems that every other commercial touts some kind of ED drug and somehow one couple has gone so far as to install separate bathtubs outdoors overlooking a body of water!
Speaking of TV commercials, there's a clever one making the rounds these days for Jameson Irish Whiskey in which John Jameson is pictured diving off a ship trying to retrieve a barrel of his whiskey that rolled overboard. Jameson is pictured in the clutches of a giant squid and a few weeks later there's a funeral attended by "all of Ireland" on a beach. What a shock when John Jameson emerges from the surf carrying the lost barrel! Last week, I realized the commercial was not all that farfetched when I saw an AP report by Bradley Brooks on a Brazilian bricklayer who showed up at his funeral! It seems a body in a car crash had been misidentified by relatives as that of the bricklayer who, at the time of the crash, was apparently at a truck stop with friends drinking a sugarcane liquor known as cachaca! Too bad it wasn't Jameson's.
But I digress. Whereas NO was the subject of my first column, another compound of nitrogen and oxygen, nitrous oxide, N2O, otherwise known as laughing gas, has recently come to the fore in regard to its effect of the ozone layer and as a global warming contributor. An article by A. R, Ravishankara and coworkers in the October 2 issue of Science points out that the amount of N2O in the atmosphere has been rising steadily and that almost a third of that is due to human activity, notably in agricultural endeavors. We've discussed in the past how the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been mostly brought under control by international agreement but now it looks like nitrous oxide emissions may undo the good brought about by the banning of CFCs. That hole in the ozone layer is not going away for a long time.
The scientist mentioned most often in these columns is Albert Einstein, whose work has truly shaped our lives and the world of science in general. Every so often I'll see an article questioning whether Einstein was wrong about this or that. Just recently, another instance of his being right came up in regard to the speed of light, as detailed in an October 28 release from NASA. One of Einstein's biggest accomplishments was his work with space-time, in which he combined space and time into a single concept, and came up with gravity as working through the warping of space-time. We've all likely seen the warping modeled by a sheet of rubber, representing space-time, being warped by a bowling ball and a smaller ball being attracted by the warped region.
Well, there are theories out there that concern the ultimate limits of smallness of the units of space and time. These theories say that at these limits space-time becomes "frothy", like its composed of ultra tiny bubbles of space-time. A fundamental tenet of relativity is that light (and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays and gamma-rays), no matter what its wavelength, travels at the same speed in a vacuum. Some of the models of the foamy, frothy space-time concept predict that light of higher energies will be slowed down by the froth compared to the velocity of light of lower energies.
Enter the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope, a telescope launched a year ago with one objective being to catch sources of gamma rays, especially gamma ray bursts. One burst that Fermi detected was a short one lasting only 2.1 seconds, believed to be a result of two neutron stars colliding some 7 billion light-years away. In this burst there were two gamma ray photons that differed in energy by a million times. Yet, after traveling those billions of years, the two photons arrived just nine-tenths of a second apart! This means that these photons were traveling at the same speed to within one part in a hundred million billion! Einstein is still the man!
Going back to the first sentence of my first column, you'll note that I reserved the right to talk about anything that strikes my fancy. I have often assumed the role of a critic of cultural events such as concerts or theater productions, even though completely unqualified to act as a critic for either. I remember being blown away by Lang Lang playing Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto and by the Russian conductor Gergiev conducting the New York Philharmonic playing Shostakovich's 12th Symphony. Just the other day I heard Gergiev being interviewed on Public Radio. In recent years I've often seen his name mentioned in connection with performances here in the U.S. and I decided to search our archives to find out when it was that I saw him conduct the Shostakovich piece. Accordingly, I put "Gergiev" in our StocksandNews search engine.
I was chagrined when my search came up blank. I then searched "Shostakovich" and, sure enough, up came my column of June 22, 1999 describing how at the end of the hour-long symphony, there was not a single clap or cheer for fully 5 seconds, the audience was so emotionally involved in the performance. My pleasure at being able to come up with the column was shattered, however, when I found that the conductor was not Gergiev. It was another Russian, Yakov Kreizberg! Not a familiar name.
Normally, I would have been truly upset that I had both not remembered Kreizberg and had also substituted Gergiev for Kreizberg in my feeble brain. Not only that but it was Shostakovich's 11th, not his 12th! I was actually more intrigued than upset by my lapse in memory because of a column I had posted not too long ago (6/25/2009) about research on memory that showed that when one recalls memory , it's as though you have wiped the memory out of your brain and have to restore the memory in your brain after recalling it. I have often thought of that concert over the past decade and also have often seen Gergiev's name and he, like Kreizberg, had ties to St. Petersburg. Not having seen Kreizberg's name following the concert, I inadvertently substituted Gergiev in my neurons. As for the 11th and 12th, I probably read that Gergiev had conducted the 12th and that accompanied Gergiev into my neurons.
Finally, in this 500th column, I have news of some consequence to me and to readers of this column. I've been fired, effective 2010! Brian Trumbore, editor of StocksandNews has decided, after more than 10 years to revamp the Web site and no doubt will have something to say about his plans in his Week in Review and/or other columns. As for me, I will be 82 by the time 2010 rolls around and, with my care-giving duties and the notable increase in the time it takes for me to write a column, I will welcome the chance to use the extra time to start addressing the many chores that have taken a back seat to the writing.
Finally, after consoling myself with the above explanation for my substituting Gergiev for Kreizberg, I must confess that, while proof reading this column before posting, instead of "Not having seen Kreizberg's name following the concert, ......", I found "Not having seen Friedberg's name ......"! I have no idea how Friedberg came into the picture and can only conclude that it's truly time to retire Old Bortrum!
Nevertheless, I expect to post a next column on November 26, give or take a day, the 26th being Thanksgiving..
Allen F. Bortrum