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Searching for Cures and Astronomical Objects
CHAPTER 98 Topics Medical and Astronomical
Anesthesia has got to be one of the greatest inventions of humankind. A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I had been in the hospital for three days because of a piece of chicken getting stuck in my esophagus and some of it getting into my lungs. A few days ago, I was in the hospital for a follow-up to my chicken episode. I was there to have an endoscopy with dilation, an operation in which the section of the esophagus that trapped the chicken was widened so as to prevent another trapping of foodstuff in that region. As with all my surgeries of the past few decades, the most painful part was the installation of the IV. In my endoscopy, they had just placed a mouthpiece in my mouth and I was told to bite down on it. The next thing I knew was the doctor telling me "It's over." He had gone in and used a balloon to widen the esophagus. It reminded me of my experience over a decade ago in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, where I had a kidney cancer operation that involved taking out a rib to get at the kidney. Before the surgery, I was sitting in the operating room with my legs dangling down over the bed when someone said that he was going to get the needle for the spinal injection. The next thing I knew I was in the recovery room. I'm still amazed I was put out while in a sitting position.
Aside from my surgery and my wife living under hospice care (she's holding her own), the past month has been medically oriented. Two of our weekly Old Guard meetings featured talks by researchers in the fields of immunotherapy and in the treatment of malaria. The immunotherapy talk dealt mainly with the treatment that involves taking T-cells from a patient's body and using techniques such as CRISPR to modify the individual's T-cells to make them active against the patient's particular form of cancer. While definitely not a cure-all, immunotherapy has been quite successful compared to chemotherapy. One of the hopes in the future is that cancer might be prevented by detecting the presence of the cells that lead to cancer early in life before the cancer has developed. It seems that precursors to cancer may be present early, even in childhood, but not show up as active cancer until much later in life.
Malaria, on the other hand is a disease that shows up after being bitten by a particular type of mosquito and prevention relies largely on such old fashioned methods such as eliminating standing water and using treated netting to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Malaria kills half a million people, mostly children, every year. One problem in Africa, where most of the malaria cases are found, is that the treatment involves taking a series of pills over a period of time. The complete dose of pills should be taken. Unfortunately, in too many cases the patient feels better after taking some of the pills and decides to save the remainder for use later should the malaria strike again. This is particularly true in Africa, where a patient may walk many miles just to get to a hospital or facility for treatment. Malaria has played an important role in my own household this year. Several months ago, our original live-in caregiver left us to care for her husband, who is recovering from malaria in Ghana. A couple of weeks ago, we were delighted that our caregiver returned from Ghana. A very special person, she served 11 years in the Army, has two sons in the Marines serving in Japan, and is a survivor of 9/11 while working at the Pentagon!
I was going to continue on a medical theme but then a number of space-related items drew my attention. First was the successful landing of another NASA spacecraft, InSight, on Mars. This marked the 8th time NASA has landed a robot on Mars. The jubilation of the JPL team on the successful landing made the TV news. Now we await the new Mars robot to start telling us things about the interior of Mars. If I understand correctly, InSight is not a rover but will stay put where it is, measuring all kinds of things, such as Marsquakes that hopefully will give us information on the interior structure of Mars. The spacecraft contains instruments and components from various countries such as Germany, France, the UK, Spain, Switzerland and Poland.
in the November 16 issue of Science I was shocked to find an article by Adam Mann titled "Large galaxy found lurking on the Milky Way's far side". I mean how can a galaxy a third the size of our own Milky Way right next door in astronomical terms have been hidden all these years? The newly discovered galaxy, called Antlia 2, is very faint, 10,000 times less bright than another galaxy, the Magellanic Cloud, that is in our vicinity. The new galaxy was discovered by astronomers in Taipei and the UK examining data from the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite, a space telescope that has been measuring the motions and properties of over a billion stars in and around our Milky Way. Specifically, the workers were looking for a rare type of star known as an RR Lyrae star.
RR Lyrae stars are pulsating stars emitting blue light and are known to astronomers as standard candles, which are useful in that knowing their inherent brightness allows the distance from us to be determined. The stars are generally so dim that finding one is a rare event. However, pouring through the Gaia data, the researchers found three of them together, a very rare event that prompted them to look more closely at that region, some 420,000 light-years away. This was not a simple task, sorting out the stars in that region from all the stars that lie between us and the RR Lyrae region that far away. It required a knowledge of parallax which goes something like this. As we on Earth move around the Sun, the positions of stars appear to us to change; that is, unless they are very far away - like 400,000 light-years. So, the astronomers looked at the Gaia data for stars in the region of the RR Lyrae that did not move in position over time and they found over a hundred red giant stars that were moving together, mapping out a galaxy that is large but contains a hundred times fewer stars than expected. Can there be more of these galaxies lurking around our home Milky Way? Stay tuned.
In the same issue of Science, the next article, "Ice Age Impact" by Paul Voosen, dealt with another space-related discovery, one of a vastly smaller magnitude but one which may have played an important role on life here on Earth some 13,000 years ago. Or maybe not. The article deals with a crater and a controversy about its possible significance. The article focuses on Kurt Kjaer, a geologist at the Natural history Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and a trip he made to the Hiawatha Glacier in the northwestern section of Greenland. Kjaer was intrigued by a 20-ton section of an iron meteorite at the museum, the meteorite having been a piece of a larger meteorite found in Greenland. The flow around the Hiawatha Glacier was in a circular pattern suggesting the presence of a crater. Without going into detail, NASA has been flying over the area for years and radar and other measurements have also suggested the presence of a crater at Hiawatha. Now Kjaer and 21 coauthors have published an article in Science Advances confirming that there is indeed a crater there that resulted from an iron asteroid that was 1.5 kilometers in diameter that created a 31kilometer wide crater. The impact had the energy of 700 1-megaton nuclear bombs spewing debris and creating steam from the snow/ice that could have warmed Greenland.
Now the intriguing part and controversy. Back around 13,000 years ago, the climate was warming up after the last ice age when the warming trend was interrupted, especially in the northern hemisphere where the temperatures increased appreciably and glaciers started to reform over a period of about a thousand years. This warming period is known as the Younger Dryas and the cause of the sudden reversal in the warming trend has been the subject of speculation for years. Could it have been the crashing to Earth of that iron meteorite in Greenland? Unfortunately, dating precisely the time of impact is not easy with the crater buried under a kilometer of ice in an area of the world not conducive to humans digging down through the ice to the bottom of the crater for samples that might shed light on the time of impact. Meanwhile, there are those such as Kjaer who argue for the cause of Younger Dryas being the meteorite while others say the impact could have happened over a hundred thousand years ago. As with the search for new galaxies, stay tuned.
Next column, hopefully, January 2019. After the late posting of this column and anticipated problems coming up I no longer feel confident of meeting deadlines on the first of a month. Hey, when next we meet I will be 91. Happy Holidays and let's hope for a less contentious 2019.
I'm posting this column on December 7. On that day in 1941, I was playing football in the street with a bunch of kids and one older fellow, who would be killed in the war that followed. This year we celebrated the lives of two heroic aviators in that war and today we are mourning the deaths of marines in a midair collision of two planes engaged in a refueling operation over Japanese waters. The marines were stationed there (as are our caregiver's two sons) as a result of the peace agreements stemming from that war over seven decades ago. Today we owe a debt of gratitude to the many thousands of heroes among us who volunteer to serve in our armed forces.
Allen F. Bortrum