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Good Riddance to 2016!
CHAPTER 76 New Year Potpourri
Happy New Year! And good riddance to 2016. As I start this column on January 1, 2017, I've just watched my favorite program Sunday Morning, which at this time of year pays tribute to those who died in the past year. After watching the program, I looked at the obituaries in the Sunday Star-Ledger and there were two men who died that my wife and I knew on a casual basis. Earlier, in the past couple of months, three good friends died, two from Alzheimer's. A major disadvantage of getting old is that you lose most of your friends.
Along these lines, this past week I turned 89 years old, celebrating the occasion in our local hospital visiting my wife who was admitted there after falling twice, just before Christmas and then after Christmas. She also had a birthday, her 91st, earlier in December. I married an older woman and on inauguration day, Jan.20, we will celebrate our 66th wedding anniversary. I'm going into all these details because I'm leading up to something and it would be helpful if I could remember what it was. Oh, now I remember. It was something to do with cousins marrying cousins.
I had read an article about the situation in certain countries, possibly Saudi Arabia was one, where the women have to wear those garments covering all of their bodies and exposing just a bit of their face. In the particular areas they also cannot be seen walking outside with a male who is not related to them As a result of the limited exposure to the opposite sex other than relatives, there is an unusually large percentage of marriages between cousins and any diseases that are present in the families are doubly likely to be inherited and passed along in such cases. Unfortunately, I seem to have thrown out the article and don't remember the source.
There's a reason I mention this that's related to my 89th birthday, which for me represents a 20th anniversary of the time that has passed since I expected to pass on. I have always thought that I take after my mother more than my father and my mother died at age 69. Not only that, but her three sisters also died at 69! Could there have been some genetic problem? The maiden name of their mother, my grandmother, was Ida Pusey. She married a second cousin, E. Baldwin Pusey. My grandmother was a feisty woman, even though only 4 foot nine inches in height. I've probably mentioned in an earlier column how she stood up to a lynch mob and refused to let them hang the poor victim on the tree in her front yard.
Well, let's get a little bit of science into this column. At the end of every year, I look forward to the first issue of Discover magazine in the new year to see what their staff considers the top 100 stories of the past year. I couldn't agree more with their number one choice - the amazing detection, with the astoundingly sensitive LIGO apparatus, of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein a hundred years ago. The December 23, 2016 issue of Science also named the gravitational wave detection as its Breakthrough of the Year. Since the first detection, another gravitational wave has been spotted, also arising from two black holes merging.
Discover rated the detection of a planet in a habitable zone orbiting Polaris b, the closest star to Earth that we know of, as its second top story of the year and it certainly is likely that a lot of effort will be put into trying to spot any signs of life around our nearest stellar neighbor to our Sun. I was happy to see the number 15 story of the year in that it seems to put to rest an archeological controversy. This concerns the so-called "hobbits", the fossils reported back in 2004. The fossils were found in a cave on the island of Flores and were of hominins only some 3 feet tall and about 50,000 years old. There was controversy in that skeptics claimed the fossils were simply diseased modern humans who were small because of the disease. Now, on another part of the island, a jawbone and other fragments of at least three individuals have been found that points to an even smaller hobbits than the original finding. Furthermore the latest fossils are hundreds of thousands of years old.
Science crept into Time magazine's Person of the Year list for 2016. Even though I intensely dislike the guy, I can't complain about Time's choice of The Donald as its Person of the Year. What pleased me was that the number 5 choice, sandwiched between number 4, President Erdogan of Turkey, and number 6, Beyonce, was "The CRISPR Pioneers". CRISPR I imagine will eventually outshine any of those on Times list in that this relatively simple and widely available approach to modifying DNA promises huge advances in the treatment of diseases and modifications in properties and characteristics of plants and animals, possibly including human beings.
Aside from the obituaries, another item in the Star-Ledger caught my attention. I have the feeling that I may have written about a similar event some years ago. The article dealt with the recent occurrence of a host of dead birds falling from the sky in a certain area of New Jersey. Over 200 red-winged blackbirds fell on a small town in Jersey and nobody knows why. Coincidentally, I had just read an article by Richard Stone in the December 16 issue of Science about birds falling from the sky in the Lut Desert in Iran. In case you, like myself, have not heard of the Lut Desert, you might make a note to strike it from your list of places to visit. Satellite measurements of the ground temperature have been as high as 159 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest ever recorded! Measurements of temperatures in the shade by some intrepid researcher have been substantially higher than the record high temperature set in Death Valley back in 1913.
Obviously, the Lut is not a place that one would expect to find much in the way of living creatures. Yet there exists what Stone calls a "vibrant ecosystem" with desert foxes, geckos and lots of insects. What sustains anything in such horribly hot conditions? One suggestion was that food was supplied by dead birds fallen from the sky! Apparently, dead birds had been spotted in the desert and the reason was assumed to be that the birds stray into the desert and succumb to the intense heat. An expedition was organized to explore this possibility and indeed they did find dead birds that could help nourish life under the extreme conditions.
But this and later forays into the Lut revealed another surprising thing - water. Just recently, a research team's convoy was exploring a flat landscape in the Lut when one of the trucks broke through the hot dry crusty soil and sank up to its axle in mud! The mud was composed of soil and super salty water. Now there's speculation that underneath this blazing hot desert there's actually a shallow sea of this salty water that comes from runoff from surrounding mountains. Research into this possibility and other characteristics of the Lut will shed further light on the matter as well as on possible future effects of climate change on surrounding territory that is now habitable for humans but may not be so in the future.
Finally, I must admit that I probably haven't read a book since the last of Tom Clancy's novels. I've just had so many journals, health related publications and a host of junk emails that, with my care-giving duties, preclude any serious time spent on reading a book. However, after browsing through the book review section of last Sunday's New York Times, there is a book that I recommend even though I'll never read it. The book is titled "Other Minds" by Peter Godfrey-Smith and was reviewed by Carl Safina, whose review is fascinating and makes me sure I would enjoy the book. It's about octopuses and bacteria and other creatures and the evolution of the mind in sea. I'm really impressed with the octopus. Octopuses have been inhabiting this planet over a thousand times longer than us humans and as I've mentioned in a recent column, are quite clever and able to accomplish such things as opening jars and clambering out of their tank in a captive situation in order to purloin food items such as crabs from another tank in the same facility. Safina notes that different octopuses have different personalities, some being friendly and outgoing while others are shy and shun interaction with people.
They can be friendly with certain individuals and show their dislike for others by squirting jets of water on others. Some will squirt the jets of water on newcomers to their area while not squirting people they have become familiar with. I was taken with the remark in the review that meeting an octopus is probably the closest thing to meeting an intelligent alien that anyone of us can experience. The reviewer points out that it doesn't take language to be aware of and interact with your surroundings and that octopuses, monkeys and elephants all are aware of their environments and how to deal with them, be it on land or in the sea. It turns out Godfrey-Smith is a diver and the review cites an incident where he was with another diver when they encountered an octopus. The other diver reached out a hand and extended a finger. The octopus extends a tentacle and grabs the hand and the diver follows as the octopus leads him back to its den, all the while engaging the diver with those big round eyes. Oh that octopuses could talk. Think of what they could tell us about their life in the ocean and how it is to live with so many neurons not just in your brain but distributed throughout your body including those amazing tentacles.
Well, now it's January 4, 2017 and I'll post this column now before another of the medical providers comes to treat or evaluate my wife. Also, I haven't mailed a single Christmas card! Next column on or about February1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum