Roaming on Mars and In the Past
CHAPTER 26 - Roaming Here and There
Those rovers on Mars are on a roll, literally and figuratively. Curiosity is roaming around looking for rocks or other features to start examining with its advanced tools, possibly coming up with some information as to whether or not life ever existed on that planet. It has now come upon a rock some 10 inches high and 18 inches wide that looks to me like a pyramid. although I can only see two sides of it. Plans are to use the rover's arm to take a look at the properties of this first object to be examined by Curiosity.
Meanwhile, one of the old-time rovers, Opportunity, is still making news after many years wandering around the surface of Mars. Specifically, Opportunity recently came across more "blueberries", spherical little marble-like structures similar to objects detected some years ago that were given the blueberry nickname. However, these latest little spheres don't "taste" like blueberries. Specifically, the composition of these latest little guys aren't as rich in iron as the earlier ones. No doubt Opportunity will spend some more time examining their composition.
NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have not been idle. It was just announced that they have combined forces to discover what may be the most distant galaxy ever seen by us humans. The very faint galaxy is the oldest ever observed, having formed earlier than a mere 500 million years after the Big Bang. In other words, the galaxy in question is more than 13 billion years old. Detection of this dim object was assisted by the fact that another galaxy lies between it and us here on Earth. This intervening galaxy provides "gravitational lensing", which magnifies the more distant galaxy's image by some 15 times. Gravitational lensing, which results from the bending of light due to the gravity of the closer galaxy, is another of those predictions coming from Einstein's work.
Well, let's come down to earth from billions of years ago to more recent times. I realize that in my recent columns I haven't been writing much in the way of memoirs, as I had planned. It was roughly the turn of the century, 2000, when we left off. Since that year ushered in the 21st century, I thought I would get out my 2000 log book to see what was going on in my life that year. There was, of course, the big hullabaloo, unfounded it turned out, about how bad things were going to happen thanks to the so-called Y2K problems in the computer/Internet world. Of course, almost everything went smoothly and we survived.
What definitely did not go smoothly that year was the presidential election, as I was reminded when I came across the words in my log on December 13 - "ELECTION IS OVER!". Let's hope that this year there are no hanging chads to contend with. It's bad enough that NFL replacement officials can't see a clear case of pass interference even with the benefit of instant replay! Just for the heck of it, I checked the archives of my columns for stocksandnews.com and found that on the previous day, December 12, 2000, I had filed a column on the Higgs boson, which made the headlines recently.
Coincidentally, a current TV commercial running in our New York metropolitan area concerns a revival on Broadway of the play "Evita". Ricky Martin is co-starring in the play. So, you might ask, what does Ricky Martin have to do with the Higgs boson? Well, in my column I used Ricky Martin and a crowd of adoring female fans to illustrate how a Higgs field conveys the property of mass on a particle. (I spelled Ricky Ricki in the column - could he have changed his name or was it my error? No doubt the latter.) In an empty room, Ricky could walk across the room in a matter of seconds. However, walking across the same room filled with these screaming fans, as Ricky attracts the gals, who crowd closer around him and it takes him an hour to get to the other side of the room, thanks to the added "weight" of the fans clumped around him. The crowd of fans is the Higgs field and could I liken the individual gals to Higgs bosons? Probably not? Also, since that 2000 column, Ricky announced that he was gay so I'm not sure my analogy illustrating the Higgs field is still valid!
By the time of that December 12, 2000 column, I had been writing stocksandnews weekly columns for over a year and a half and was turning them out once a week without much difficulty. In contrast, writing my current once-a-month columns at 84 years of age is proving to be a real challenge, even when I know what I want to say. Quite depressing in this regard was an article I found in the October 2012 issue of Discover magazine. The article, by Robert Epstein, is titled "Brutal Truths About the Aging Brain".
The article discusses various changes that happen as one ages and contains photographs of MRIs of brains of 27- and 87-year-olds. Among the changes as one ages are a shrinking of the neural network connecting the neurons, an expansion of the ventricles containing the cerebrospinal fluid that cushions the brain, a withering of glial cells that play an important role in signal transmission in the brain, etc. According to the article, although only about ten percent of our neurons are lost as we age, 25 percent of the connections forming the network of connections among our neurons are lost. As if that weren't bad enough, going along with this network loss is a drop of some 40 percent of our dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the transmission of signals between neurons. These are just some of the losses related to functioning of our brains at a high level.
While the article was depressing, in another sense it was reassuring in that at least I know that my decreased productivity and creativity is a "normal" consequence of aging. What really amused me was that the same issue of Discover also contains an article by George Church and Ed Regis titled "Recipe for Immortality". The article discusses the possibility that people could soon learn how to live for centuries! The thesis of the article is that scientists may, in the not-too-distant future, find out how to tinker with our human genome so as to take care of all the aforementioned effects of aging and extend our youthful years out to unbelievable lengths of time. Can you imagine the problems created if indeed a significant percentage of the world's population actually did start to live, even to the age of, say, 120, let alone for centuries? In contrast, going through my 2000 log, I found that six good friends or associates died that year.
In line with the aging theme, for the past three years or so, my wife and I have canceled all our theater, Philharmonic and other cultural subscriptions or activities. At 84, my golf is limited to our local par-3 course and my walks at the local mall are typically only about a mile, not 3 miles, in duration. Perusing my 2000 log, I found we were still going to Marco Island for a month or two in the winter. I noted that, before one Friday-afternoon Philharmonic concert in New York, we lunched at Jean Georges restaurant, with Donald Trump dining at a nearby table. (I believe we only ate at Jean Georges one other time and then Henry Winkler, the Fonz, was at the next table.) A final bit of name-dropping - 2000 was the year I attended the festivities accompanying the 125th anniversary celebration of the founding of the chemistry department at the University of Pittsburgh. At the banquet, I sat next to Paul Lauterbur, who later got the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of MRI.
My log also noted that in 2000 Guillain Barré syndrome came into my life. Dennis Turner, a Bell Labs colleague and my predecessor as Secretary of The Electrochemical Society (ECS), was in the hospital with Guillain Barré and decided that he was unable to continue a project he had just started. The project was to write/edit a centennial history of ECS. Another Bell Labs colleague, Bob Frankenthal, was in charge of the organization of a major celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of ECS back in 1902 in Philadelphia. Bob was driving back home from visiting Dennis in the hospital when I happened to walk in front of his car as he was making a turn. He stopped and by the time I continued on my walk I had become the new co-editor and writer of the centennial history! The project would take up almost all my free time for the next year or more, even while on vacation in Florida. The job involved frequent visits to Pennington, NJ, the headquarters of ECS to meet with Mary Yess, the publications director, and others in the ECS. At times, it was not an easy task to obtain inputs on the history of the various divisions and sections of the Society from the appropriate chairpersons and then try to make those inputs into a coherent text that sounded as though the history were written as though in one voice.
The result of all this was a coffee table-size, illustrated volume of some 200 pages, which was distributed to all those attending the centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 2002. At the risk of sounding boastful, I, and all who contributed, notably Mary Yess, can be justifiably proud of the result.
Well, before closing, I should note that those rovers on Mars are still making news. Just this past week, NASA reported that Curiosity has discovered rocks and gravel embedded in other conglomerate rocks that indicate they were formed by rapidly flowing (about 3 feet per second) water in a stream or streams that ranged from ankle- to perhaps hip-high depths. Although it has been known that water has existed and still does exist on Mars, this is the first time we've actually seen "water-transported gravel". In years past, this finding alone would have more than justified the expense of a mission to Mars. Now we can look forward to more exciting findings to come.
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about November 1.
Allen F. Bortrum