CHAPTER 79 Revisitations and a Correction
Is there an epidemic? Last month I mentioned a news item about a man with a 130-pound tumor and I wondered how something could grow so large and not be treated. Well, this past month in the March 16 issue of The Star Ledger there was a an article by Amy Wang of the Washington Post headlined "Grandma discovers why she can't shed her 'potbelly': It was a 140-pound tumor"! Mary Clancey, a Pennsylvania woman who is now 71, was a petite woman back when she was in her forties but at age 45 she suddenly began to gain weight, at about 5 pounds a year. The potbelly kept growing until she weighed 365 pounds! One of her sons finally got her to the hospital last year in November after she had trouble getting out of bed and she recalls him remarking as to how thin her arms were and how the rest of her protruded straight forward. The doctors were shocked when they found the tumor, an ovarian cyst, didn't even fit in the picture of the CT scan. Fortunately, surgeons were able to remove the tumor and also 40 pounds of excess skin from her body! She is using a walker but after the operation she marvels at how much energy she has and how flat her stomach is.
On a different note, I often tell someone I meet my story about owing my life to Breyer's ice cream. In fact, I've told this story in these columns more than once, most recently I think in my column of 9/29/2010 (see archives). A couple weeks ago I happened to tell the story to a fellow I met in our Old Guard meeting and when I got home decided to Google the episode and found that I had erred in my column. I also learned some additional details that were quite touching.
To save you the trouble of searching the archives, the story relates back to my youth in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where we lived in a rented house just a block down the alley from Rakestraw's ice cream factory. Every Sunday we would either make ice cream using the cream saved from the tops of our milk bottles in those days prior to homogenization, or we would buy ice cream from Rakestraw's or from a store that sold hand dipped Breyer's ice cream. The store was several blocks farther from our house. One Sunday, it was my turn to get the ice cream and we debated Rakestraw's versus Breyer's. I walked the extra distance to get the Breyer's ice cream. At the very time I would have been at Rakestraw's there was an explosion and two girls were killed. So, I really do owe my life to Breyer's ice cream.
In my 2010 column, I said that the explosion was in 1938 and that I was 10 years old. When I wrote that column, I didn't know the true nature of the explosion and did not know or remember anything about the girls who were killed. When I Googled the event this past month I found I was wrong about the year of the explosion. It actually happened in July of 1937 and I was only 9 years old. I found a front-page report on the incident in the Harrisburg Telegraph newspaper. A 500-gallon tank of ammonia blew up, resulting in strangling fumes and fire. Several people suffered from inhalation of the fumes and a man was actually blown out the door by the blast. The news account said he was in critical condition but I assume that he survived or I would have known about it.
The two girls, Grace and Catherine Moyer, were sisters, ages 12 and 4. The older girl was at Rakestraw's with her wagon to pick up ice for neighbors, who would pay her for her effort. This was back in the days when we still had iceboxes. Grace would pull her little sister in her wagon and the two would pull the wagon back loaded with the ice. After the explosion Grace, with her clothes on fire, ran out of the plant screaming that her sister was inside. I was surprised to read that one sister died in the Carlisle Hospital while the other died in the Harrisburg Hospital. Mechanicsburg is located roughly midway between the two cities.
It bothered me that I had gotten the date of the explosion wrong in my earlier column and I went back to Google to get some more information. In doing so I found a curious thing. I obtained the above information on the explosion when I went to Google on my iPad. To obtain the information I entered obvious words such as explosion, Rakestraw's, ice cream, Mechanicsburg, ammonia, etc. I write these columns using my desktop computer and when at my desk use my Comcast Xfinity home page search engine, which says it is "enhanced by Google". Entering the same words or combinations of those words I could not come up with anything about the explosion! I got a few references to Rakestraw's ice cream and how popular it is but nothing on the explosion. Just now, in order to check, I went to the Xfinity search engine to confirm my findings but somehow, in logging off, I ended up with a page that just said Google. So I entered the same words and, sure enough, came up with the Harrisburg Telegraph article and Dr. Bortrum's 2010 column! So, I now know that all search engines are not created equal! Incidentally, in the course of all this messing around, I ran across a Mechanicsburg Fire Department Web site that stated that on August 21, 1991 a disgruntled employee of Rakestraw's set the place on fire and the 4-alarm blaze drew responses from fire companies all over the area. Rakestraw's rebuilt and is still in business.
OK, I probably should get to something of a scientific nature. Although devastating to those poor kids who died, the explosion of an ammonia tank pales when compared with a tidal disruption event or TDE. After reading about TDEs in an article by S. Bradley Cenko and Neil Gehrels titled "How to Swallow a Sun" in the April issue of Scientific American, I'm glad we Earthlings live on a planet on the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy. The article describes what happens when a black hole swallows a star. We in New Jersey know a bit about tidal forces, especially when a Nor'easter comes up the coast and high tides flood coastal towns. Those tides are essentially due to the tidal forces owed to the pull of our moon as it revolves around our planet.
Our tides can be impressive but think of the tidal force that if we came close to a black hole with a mass millions or even billions of times that of our sun. Like most every galaxy, there's a massive black hole at the center. The black hole feeds on gases and on objects that come too close. Naively, I would have thought that if a star came too close to a black hole, the star would just be swallowed up in one huge gulp. Not necessarily true. It all depends on the sizesof the black hole and the size and nature of the star. A huge black hole billions of times our Sun's mass can indeed swallow a star in a gulp. But more likely with smaller black holes and "puffy" stars like our Sun, tidal forces can play a major role. Instead of a star being sucked in more or less in a single gulp. The tidal forces with a black hole just millions of solar masses can actually rip a star apart due to the tidal force pulling on the star. The authors liken the effect to pulling taffy apart. As the star is ripped apart, its debris is heated to extremely high temperatures and the event is brighter than all the stars in the black hole's galaxy. You still can't see a black hole but you sure know it's there! Some of the debris gets sucked in quickly, some gets flung out into space and some goes into orbit around the black hole eventually ending up in the hole. Some of the debris can be accelerated to nearly the speed of light. Astronomers are on the lookout for these relatively rare events, which shed light on the masses of black holes and on the stars torn apart.
Of course, there's an even bigger event that astronomers have "seen". (As with Trump, they didn't actually see it.) That's when two black holes meet and merge, generating gravitational waves, at least two of which were detected and created such a stir in the scientific community last year. As discussed in a previous column, the gravity waves were detected by the so-called LIGO teams located in Louisiana and Washington. A key point in the detections was that the tiny fraction-of-a-second blips were recorded at different times in the two locations, just as expected for a wave traveling through space.
In the same issue of Scientific American there's an article about a third gravity wave detector facility of the LIGO type that I didn't realize existed. It's located in Pisa, Italy. and was offline when the two first gravitational waves were detected back in 2015. The Italian detector, called Advanced Virgo, hopefully will be back online this year, and will provide a third location where a gravity wave could be detected. With three locations and the times between detection at three locations, the origin of the source of any gravity wave can be pinpointed more precisely.
Now back to a task of considerable gravity, filing my tax return. Next column on or about May 1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum