From Small Needles to Galaxy Clusters
CHAPTER 72 Potpourri of Nothing and Something
I ended last month's column, which dealt in part with nothing, with a comment asking if there was nothing Donald Trump wouldn't say to ensure Hillary being our next president. Wouldn't you know that, not long after posting that column, I turned on the TV to find all major New York stations focused on a 19-year-old fellow climbing up the Trump Tower in mid-Manhattan! And what was the young lad relying on to achieve this feat? Essentially, nothing. He was using large suction cups, which rely on the principle that when you press or pound them firmly against a flat surface you squeeze out all the air between the cup and the surface, allowing the pressure of the atmosphere to hold the cup in place. So, he was counting on virtually nothing being between the surface and the cup.
It was riveting TV and my wife and I were holding our breaths as the foolish fellow would very deliberately move himself up by methodically moving a cup by somehow allowing air back in and then pressing and pounding the cup against the window in a higher position. I couldn't see how he was hooking himself to the cups but assume he was hooked to at least two cups so that when he moved one of them he was still attached to the other. The climb ended somewhere in the vicinity of the 20th floor, where the police had removed a large window near a corner of the building. It seemed as though the fellow was going to try to bypass that open window but in a great effort one of the police, held by at least one or more policemen inside, managed to lean out and grab the fellow and haul him inside. Obviously, the climber has mental issues. He apparently wanted to meet with Donald Trump and discuss something of great importance with him.
The risky climbing incident involving a 19-year-old fits in with various articles on studies of the adolescent brain and how the brain isn't fully developed until well beyond the teen years. In fact, after watching the climber, I read an article titled "The Young and the Riskless" by Kayt Sukel in the September issue of Discover magazine. I won't attempt to go into detail on the work described in the article but one conclusion of the research on regions such as the amygdala and other parts of the brain is that the developing brain in the adolescent years results in an overestimation of the value of rewards. This desire for rewards tends to make the teenager willing to engage in more risky behavior to achieve the reward. Climbing up a skyscraper to achieve the reward of talking with Donald Trump is certainly a hugely risky behavior which, in my opinion, is obviously nowhere near worth the danger involved. Besides, the chances of meeting The Donald by having lunch at the restaurant Jean-Georges in another of his hotels in Manhattan are much greater, as I've mentioned before.
I can't seem to get away from nothing. Take the case of acupuncture. Some years ago, my wife was having pain of some sort and decided to try acupuncture. The acupuncturist was an MD who had worked at Bell Labs and was one of the most interesting people I've ever met. He was from Burma, now Myanmar, and his path to becoming an MD in the USA would make a good book. But not here. Suffice to say, the acupuncture did not do anything for my wife's pain.
In the August issue of Scientific American there's an article by Jeneen Interlandi titled "The Acupuncture Myth". I was intrigued by her account of how acupuncture got on the radar of many Americans. It seems that in 1971 noted journalist James Reston was in China and had his appendix removed. He was impressed with his experience and wrote about it, saying that he had lidocaine and benzocaine anesthetics before his surgery but what impressed him was that after his surgery he had acupuncture with the usual insertion and twisting of needles and he thought it worked. His readers were suitably impressed but before long, as in the retelling of many stories, his story became nixed up and he had received acupuncture before his surgery. Well, this version was really exciting and acupuncture took off in the USA.
According to the article, most studies on acupuncture lean towards any benefits from acupuncture as being due to the placebo effect. Your mind tells you that it should work and the result is you get relief even though nothing of any real therapeutic value is involved in the needling of the acupuncture. Studies have not proved any "real" benefits from acupuncture, there is still a lot of work going on trying to dig out whether there is truly something in acupuncture that provides the benefits that some report.
There is work going on that indicates that the needling may stimulate release of a compound that that reduces pain by reducing inflammation, a compound known as adenosine. In studies on mice several years ago, acupuncture was found to stimulate a 24-fold increase in adenosine in the mice. As a result, the mice showed a substantial reduction in discomfort as measured by their reactions to heat and touch. Another group of researchers found that injection of a compound that stimulated the breaking down of other compounds in the body into adenosine also provided relief of pain in surrounding tissue.
All in all, the value of acupuncture remains up in the air. The studies haven't proved acupuncture is any better at stimulating release of adenosine than say, pinching or other ways of applying pressure. At the present time, it is hoped that work on adenosine and other possible alternatives to those addicting opioids and other powerful meds that are killing thousands of people every year will eventually yield safer and effective pain-killers. Maybe acupuncture will turn out to be more than just placebo, with just a bit of something, not nothing, resulting from that needling.
Ok, let's turn to something that was once huge but now is almost nothing. This past week I was late in perusing my June 17, 2016 issue of Science and found that I had missed something big that happened late on Christmas day last year. In a previous column, I discussed the detection of the first gravitational wave by workers associated with the LIGO project, with facilities in Louisiana and the state of Washington. This monumental discovery confirmed Einstein's prediction of such waves a century ago in his general theory of relativity. Well, the LIGO workers got a real Christmas present last year when they detected another gravitational wave formed over a billion years ago. In both cases, the gravity waves were formed as two black holes spiraled together just before merging.
Comparing the two detections of gravity waves, the Christmas wave was much longer, lasting five times as long as the first wave, all of 1 second! The researchers only glimpsed 10 cycles of the first wave lasting only a fifth of a second. On the other hand, they witnessed 55 cycles of the second death spiral in that full second. I have no idea how they do it but the researchers use computer modeling to come up with the masses of the black holes involved in the collisions. The first wave was generated by very large black holes with masses 36 and 29 times that of our Sun. The Christmas wave involved what were termed "garden variety" black holes of only 14 and 7.5 times the mass of our Sun. The detection of the larger number of cycles in the Christmas wave apparently allowed a more stringent test of Einstein's theory and, I would expect no less, it passed the test. With the detection of a second gravitational wave, it is expected that the finding of more waves will become much more frequent as the sensitivities of the LIGO facilities are increased.
Finally, as long as I'm talking space, I should mention the finding of another planet that made the headlines recently. With thousands of planets outside our solar system now identified, most by the Kepler space mission, this planet was discovered by astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile and other telescopes around the globe. Why the excitement over this planet, dubbed Proxima b, which orbits the star Proxima Centauri? Well, Proxima Centauri, just 4 light-years away, is the closest star to us humans other than our own star, our Sun. A visit to the ESO web site conveys the excitement over the discovery of Proxima b.
The team of astronomers was led by Guillern Anglada-Escudé from Queen Mary University in London in an effort called the Pale Red Dot campaign. What is so exciting is that Proxima b is in a habitable zone with temps that would allow liquid water to exist and, perhaps is a rocky planet at least 30 percent larger than Earth. If there is life on the planet, it would certainly be a different kind of life than on our Earth. Chance are that t Proxima b is like our moon in that it probably presents the same face to its star all the time. If so, there would presumably be no sunrises and sunsets. Also it's so close to its star that it whizzes around it in 11 days, not a very long year! Proxima Centauri is not like our Sun, but is a red dwarf star, cooler than our sun, which is why the temperature on Proxima b is so cool it could harbor liquid water even though its orbit is closer to its star than Mercury is to our Sun. Although cooler than our Sun, there are probably stellar flares that would hit Proxima b. We don't know if the planet has a magnetic field that could shield the planet as our magnetic field shields us from bursts of stuff from the Sun that could harm us or even blow away our atmosphere over time.
All in all, it seems to me pretty unlikely that life as we know it exists on Proxima b but it certainly is exciting that we have found a planet orbiting the closest star to our own solar system. There's a lot we don't know about our nearest neighbor planetary system but you can bet that Proxima b will be a prime target for larger telescopes planned for orbit or here on the ground in future years. I doubt if I'll be around to learn what they find but hope I'm wrong about my doubting life on that planet. Incidentally, I find that last week's Week in Review column by our editor, Brian Trumbore, also took note of Proxima b. Could it be that Brian plans to take over the science beat when old Bortrum calls it quits?
Whoa! After finishing this column I saw on the evening news a report about a record breaking galaxy cluster forming. Not something I would expect to make the headlines normally. A visit to the NASA Web site reveals that the cluster of 11 galaxies is 11 billion light-years away from us, making it the earliest galaxy cluster observed to date by some 700 million years. Nine of the galaxies are producing new stars at a stunning rate equivalent to 3,000 Suns per year! I can't help wondering where those galaxies are now and whether any of those suns still exist. Well, I started this column talking about nothing but am ending talking about huge, and it's not a wall.
Next column, hopefully, on or about October 1.
Allen F. Bortrum