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March Madness and Other Topics
CHAPTER 91 Potpourri of Weather and Other Topics
March is over and good riddance to that horrible month. We in this part of New Jersey were among the hundreds of thousands in the Northeast suffering the effects of four Nor'easters in the course of three weeks. In our case, the first storm brought down a tree around the corner that took down the power line feeding our house. The result was that we were without power for 25 hours. I was very lucky in that the power went out just as I was about to walk downstairs carrying a tray of dishes from my wife's evening meal! I hate to think of what might have happened in the pitch blackness if I had been on those steps. As it was, I had trouble getting back to the bedroom and finding a flashlight. At least we only spent one night without heat and the temperature only dropped to about 60 degrees F.
However, less than a week later, the second Nor'easter hit with a vengeance. In our area, we had I would estimate about 18 inches of heavy wet snow and a surprising lack of any significant wind. This allowed the snow to pile up on the trees and the dreaded result came to pass. A very large branch came down off one of our trees, taking down our power and cable lines, leaving us without power, phone, TV and Internet. At least two more trees came down on our block alone. This time we were without power for three days and were about to go to bed with the temp in our house at 51 degrees when our power was restored. As for our cable, it was 3 or 4 more days before two intrepid Comcast workers arrived one morning with it still snowing and blowing in another Nor'easter. These guys risked life and limb for two hours installing a new cable from our house to the pole across the street. Unlike the power workers with their cherry picker,, these fellows only had ladders and they had to maneuver in the deep snow piled up by the snowplows.
During such power outages, it is intriguing as to who suffers. During the first outage our next door neighbors, with twins just a few months old, did not lose power, being on a separate circuit. While we were out of power three days the second time, it was five or six days powerless for them and they had to stay with friends or relatives in New York state. Our next door neighbor on the other side is a surgeon and he and other neighbors on that side were blocked from driving because of our branch and a downed tree blocking the road. One day he operated on a patient who drove him to the hospital! The next day he parked a friend's car in our driveway for an early morning trip for another operation. Each time, our neighbor had to duck under the possibly live downed power line from our house!
Enough about the weather. Well, not quite. I can remember a long time ago writing in one of these columns about global warming (before the term was modified to climate change) and how some regions would actually experience periods of unusual cold spells. Recently, I've heard weather types on TV and have read bits in scientific publications talking about how the truly huge amount of warming in the Arctic has not only depleted the normal summer ice pack but has also upset the polar vortex behavior. The conclusion being that the warming in the Arctic has disturbed the normal vortex behavior such that the Arctic warming is causing the unusual strings of storms and colder weather in regions such as our own.
March was not only a down month as far as weather is concerned but the month also saw the departure of a man who must rank as one of the most impressive human beings ever to inhabit this Earth. I had just watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory on demand in which Stephen Hawking's name was mentioned when I got an email from our grandson that ended with Happy Pi Day/Einstein's birthday/RIP Stephen Hawking. That's how I learned of the death of this intellectual giant trapped in a shell of a body for over half a century. I found my copy of "A Brief History of Time" and started to read it as my way of paying tribute to Hawking but all the storm related events and their consequences probably will end up making my finishing the book unlikely. I've seen a comment somewhere to the effect that Hawking's book was the most widely read book of all time that most readers never finished. I fear that I may end up again being in that crowd.
Ok, let's catch up on some things. Last month, I made some remarks about Elon Musk's roadster possibly being found by someone or something on a planet outside our solar system. I was under the impression that the spacecraft housing the roadster might depart our solar system some day. Now I find that there is a better chance that the roadster may actually burn up in our own atmosphere. In the February 23 issue of Science there is a brief paragraph on the fate of the SpaceX roadster. Apparently, the car is headed beyond Mars' orbit but will return to cross the orbits of Mars, Earth and Venus again and again with many close encounters. A team of researchers at the University of Toronto has delved into exploring the path the car will take and finds it's a difficult problem but they estimate that there's only a slim 6% chance that the car will burn up in the Earth's atmosphere within a million years and a 2.5% chance that it will choose Venus for a fiery graveyard. I would be very surprised if there are still humans around in a million years should Earth be the place for the roadster's demise. More important today, nobody seems to have been hurt by the crashing of the Chinese space station.
Now let's revisit the Neandertals. In the past I've touched on the Neandertals and have taken some delight in the fact that I likely have a few percent Neandertal genes in my own DNA. I've written too about work indicating that the Neandertals weren't just the brutish characters they were long proclaimed to be. In the same issue of Science there's an article by Tim Appenzeller titled "Europe's first artists were Neandertals". The article is a commentary on the significance of another article in the journal by over a dozen authors from various countries in Europe titled "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art". I admit that I probably would have skipped the latter article had it not been for the former one. One of the characteristics of us modern humans that distinguishes us from other of our hominins has been the ability to create art, notably cave art. I think that I discussed some earlier work that suggested the possibility that the Neandertals may have been the creators of some art in caves in Spain or maybe Gibraltar.
At any rate, the above researchers have looked at an outline of a hand, an array of lines and a painted cave formation from three different caves in Spain. In a paper in another journal some of the same authors were involved in looking at shells from another cave in Spain. These shells had traces of pigment and were pierced as though worn for decoration. All of these were found to be more than 64,800 years old, at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived upon the scene. The method used to date the cave paintings was rather impressive to me. It seems that, after the paintings were painted on the cave walls, groundwater would drip over the walls, covering the paintings with thin layers of the mineral calcite. The water contained a tad of uranium (U), which in turn decays into an isotope of thorium (Th). By carefully scraping off thin samples of calcite and measuring the relative amounts of thorium and uranium, the researchers could date the age of the calcite covering the art. The age of the artwork, has to be at least the age of the calcite or older. Neat.
Now let's check up on a problem that we've considered a number of times, most recently in connection with the burying beetle. The problem is the disposal of dead bodies and the dying out of the animals that have been nature's instruments for the environmentally sound way of disposing of the bodies. In the March 9 issue of Science Warren Cornwall pens an article from Vulture Safe Zone 1 in Bangladesh. The article, "Looking for Love", deals with efforts in Bangladesh to bring back vulture populations which have been decimated by the use of a drug called diclofenac, which has been widely used in Asia, notably in India, to promote good health in cattle. As I've noted in an earlier column, the drug is great for the cattle but deadly to vultures which eat the bodies of dead cattle, especially in India where cattle are revered and people are reluctant to dispose of them.
A wake of vultures, wake being the term to describe a flock of the birds, can strip a cow to its bare bones in less than an hour. But if the cow was fed diclofenac, goodbye vultures and now it's up to humans to dispose of the bodies or suffer the diseases that might spring up from the flies or other species that feed on rotting flesh. To address the problem and try to bring back the vulture population South Asian nations, notably India and Bangladesh, have set up 11 safe zones where diclofenac is banned and vulture populations have more or less been stabilized. Unfortunately, the drug is still around and other untested drugs have been introduced so it will be a continuing battle to bring back the number of vultures needed to carry out their mission of disposal of dead bodies. At least in Bangladesh in Vulture Safe Zone 1 the vultures seem to be holding their own or increasing in numbers.
Well this has been a hodge podge of a column, just like the month of March. And to end the month we now learn from the news media that scientists have discovered a "new organ" in the human body. The organ is called the "interstitium", a hitherto undiscovered network of interconnected fluid-filled chambers that lie under the skin and are also found surrounding all sorts of objects in the body such as bladders, lungs, arteries and in muscles. It seems as though the reason this "new organ" had never been seen before lies in the methods used for sampling tissues. For example, when a slice of skin is taken the underlying liquid in the interstitium drains off leaving just what appears to be a dense layer of supportive tissue. Researchers David Carr-Locke and Neil Theise at Weil Cornell Medicine and NY Langone Health and their colleagues were looking at living bile duct tissue using Probe-based Confocal Laser Endomicroscopy, a technique I had not heard of before. The technique involved using a dye and they found the web like structure filled with dye. They then took freeze-dried sample of the duct and other tissues and found the liquid-filled chamber structures under different kinds of tissue.
At present it seems that the interstitium with its liquid filled chambers may serve as a sort of shock absorber to help in the movement of bodily parts/organs but obviously, much more work needs to be done on this "new organ". On the downside, there is speculation that these interconnected chambers of liquid could serve as conduits for the spread of cancer cells in the body. You'll note that I have put quotes around the term new organ after reading an article I found in an email from Discover magazine, "The Interstitium Is Important But Don't Call It An Organ (Yet)" by Nathaniel Scharping. The author notes that over hundreds of years the definition of an "organ" has been the subject of debate by anatomists and even today there is no "official" definition of an organ. One definition is that an organ is composed of two or more tissues, is self-contained and performs a specific function. Whether or not it is deemed eventually to become an organ, the finding of the interstitium could turn out to be a very important discovery of a hitherto unknown part of the human body.
I'm posting this column on April 2 and what do you know, this morning we got about 6 inches of snow! Our power is still on! Next column on or about May 1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum