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Chapter 104 Highs and Lows
Breaking long standing traditions or patterns of behavior can be difficult. In the space of two days last month, I was distressed by having three such events take place. Ever since my retirement from Bell Labs in 1989, I have been walking at the local mall, open to walkers at 7:30 am. At first, my wife and I would walk 4 or 5 times a week but in recent years she dropped out and I've only been walking once a week, on Wednesdays with two couples. All those years the walks ended with having coffee and a muffin or Danish at the Au Bon Pain restaurant in our mall. On Wednesday a couple weeks ago we approached Au Bon Pain to find it boarded up, literally, without any advanced notice. An era had ended and so far, we haven't found an alternative with the equivalent selection of breakfast items.
The next day was milk day, when our milkman Dan comes in with our three quarts of skim milk delivered on Mondays and Thursdays. (Most of the time when I've mentioned our milkman, the response is "You have a milkman?") Dan had been complaining for a few months about severe pains in his leg and hip and was scheduled for hip replacement the next Monday. Furthermore, he said that he had sold his business and that this was his last day and he was saying goodbye. It was a very emotional time and he actually was crying! You have to realize that he'd been delivering our milk for at least 32 years and for the past decade or so has been coming inside to save me risking a fall going down steps and possibly slipping on snow or ice picking up milk from our outside milk box. As a result, we would have conversations on such topics as my golf scores and other weighty matters and developed a rapport beyond him just delivering our milk. I'm happy to say that I called him and he's feeling much better after the hip replacement.
That same Thursday came the third ending of an era, this time an era shared with millions of others - the finale of the TV show "The Big Bang Theory". How could I not like a show focused on science and that on occasion featured such characters as Steven Hawking, Elon Musk, Kareem Abbdul Jabbar and William Schattner playing themselves. And I especially loved it on the occasions when Bob Newhart appeared, even in dream sequences after his character had died in the show. I was happy with the ending of the show when the self-centered, obnoxious Sheldon Cooper finally showed some degree of humanity acknowledging his friends in his Nobel Prize award address closing the 12-year long series.
I should mention that the trauma of the ending of these eras was compounded by the fact that on that same Thursday the handle on our microwave oven broke off and our garage door would not open when I pushed the switch or tried using the remote! What more could go wrong? I was soon to find out. The next week I found my right leg swollen to about twice its normal size and a couple days later it was joined by my right leg. I looked like the cyclist in those insurance commercials on TV boasting about his "customized calves". Blood work, X-rays and ultrasound procedures revealed no clots but possible kidney problems or a reaction to a change in blood pressure medication.
If it turns out to be a kidney problem, another era would come to a close. For at least 50 or 60 years, when at home, I've started my day with a big glass of orange juice blended with half a banana, often supplemented by cereal (typically a mix of raisin bran, Cheerios and granola) and skim milk. I consume almost a full quart of milk a day. So, what are some of the worst foods you can consume if you have kidney disease? Orange juice, oranges, bananas, raisins, bran, oatmeal (and I presume oats), granola and milk! What really got to me was when I read that one should eat white bread, not whole wheat!
Well, enough of my medical problems. Let's turn to something of a higher significance. When it comes to us on Earth, nothing is higher than Mt. Everest, at over 29,000 feet. You've almost certainly seen the pictures on TV the past few weeks of the long line of climbers lined up to attempt to reach the summit. At least 11 climbers have died on the mountain in the past month.
It happens that, a few weeks ago, I actually held in my hand a piece of that very mountain!
The speaker at our Old Guard meeting was a fellow who, a year ago with his three climbing buddies, made it to the top of Mt. Everest and he passed around a very small rock he picked up on that climb. He gave a riveting talk with pictures detailing the climb and when the talk was over I felt exhausted, as if I had climbed Mt Everest myself. He and his companions were all members of the Seven Summits community, climbers who have or plan to summit the seven highest mountains on the seven continents. I forget, but either one or two of his team had already been to the top of Everest. Which was significant, in that on the way up the mountain they met a group coming down that included a Sherpa who had accompanied those climbers up the mountain on their previous climb! There was hugging and joy at the unexpected reunion and the parties went their separate ways. Sadly, they were to learn that the Sherpa died on the way down, I believe falling into a crevasse! He was one of three climbers who died while they were there.
This year there's been criticism that the government of Nepal granted too many permits (I think it's something like 380) to climb the mountain, leading to the long line of climbers you see on TV. It's easy to see why the Nepal government would do so, given the cost of a permit is $11,000! Our speaker said that it usually takes two or three months just to get acclimated before the climb but his group convinced the powers that be that they could just take five weeks. He emphasized that you don't just set out on a continuous climb up the mountain; it's up and down, up and down,....until the final trek to the summit. I hadn't known that the climb to the summit takes place at night so as to arrive at the peak in morning daylight. And you're carrying a 40 lb pack with oxygen that has to last while you're in the death zone, the highest elevation range where there's not enough oxygen to sustain human life.
I just checked Wikipedia and the death toll this year has now reached 12. Most of the deaths for this year and last year are reported as being due to "exhaustion on descent" and/or altitude sickness. Looking back through the records dating back to 1922, I was struck with how many have been the victims of avalanches. When you see those pictures of the long line of climbers up near the summit you might get the impression it's like a walk in the park. Not so! The total number of recorded deaths since 1922 is 308.
I was wondering what to write about to finish this column when I came across the perfect topic, given the theme of the high altitude climbing in the above. In the May 3 issue of Science I found an article by Ann Gibbons titled "Ancient jaw gives elusive Denisovans a face". The article refers to truly groundbreaking work published in the journal Nature about a fossil jawbone found by a monk 39 years ago in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau in China. The cave is at an altitude over 10,000 feet. The jawbone, with four big teeth, was quite unusual and the monk turned it over to a "living Buddha" (apparently China has officially designated living Buddhas). This fellow thought the jaw was unusual and turned it over to Lanzhou University, where the researchers were puzzled by it and it ended up on shelves for many years.
Fortunately, an archeologist at the university, Dongju Zhang, took an interest in the jawbone and she traced its history back to the cave. She and a geologist at the university, Fahu Chen, showed the jawbone to Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Longtime readers of these columns will know that any contact with a researcher from a Max Planck Institute is almost certain to be fruitful. Hublin, seeing those large molars in the jawbone, thought the jawbone belonged to a Denisovan. If so, this was a mind blowing find!
Let's go back. Some time ago, workers at a Max Planck Institute managed to isolate and decode the DNA of ancient Neandertal fossils, a major achievement that led to the more recent findings that those of us with European ancestry have a few percent Neandertal genes resulting from our homo sapiens ancestors having sex with the Neandertals. But the modern humans and the Neandertals weren't the only game in town. In the Denisova Cave in Russia, a fossil pinkie from the hand of a girl, and later some teeth and bone fragments, were found and the DNA from these was found not to be of either homo sapiens or Neandertal origin. A new species, the Denisovans had been found. Recently, DNA analysis showed a fossil from the cave came from someone who had one parent a Neandertal and the other parent a Denisovan! So, we know that the Neandertals really got around but there were no Denisovan fossils found anywhere other than in Denisova Cave. Until now.
Back to our jawbone. Is it really that of a Denisovan? Let's analyze the DNA and we'll know the answer. By analyzing uranium decay products in a crust that formed around the jawbone, the jawbone was found to be at least 180,000 years old! Well, after that long a time, the DNA had decomposed. We obviously won't be able to show that this is a Denisovan jawbone. Enter Frido Welker, one of Hublin's grad students. In his doctoral work he had shown that the sequences of amino acids in certain proteins were different in Neandertals, Denisovans and modern humans. Collagen is a common structural protein and Welker managed to extract some collagen from one of those big teeth of the jawbone. The amino acid sequences most closely matched the Denisovans! So, now there's a new tool other than DNA for analysis of truly ancient fossils - analyze the proteins. Could there be a Nobel Prize out there?
Now we know that Denisovans were living out there in Tibet, and who knows where else, at altitudes of more than 10,000 feet over a hundred thousand years before modern humans arrived on the scene. Did the modern humans pick up from the Denisovans a gene that helps humans to adapt to the thin air and low oxygen levels at those high elevations? There is evidence for such a gene. Do those Sherpas in the Everest region have some such genes they may have acquired from interacting with Denisovans? You can be sure there will be a surge in studies on these elusive individuals in the years to come.
Oh, some Gorilla glue has at least temporarily fixed that microwave oven handle. And it only cost me a hundred bucks to learn from our garage door man that for the garage door to open with either our push button or our remote it takes something called electricity! Some 30 or 40 years ago, when we had the garage door installed by this fellow's father, he tapped into the light socket to power the garage door unit and the light that came with the unit. So, 30 or 40 years ago, the installer flicked on the ordinary wall mounted switch; we never touched it again. The wall switch became invisible to me. But not to one of our live-in caregivers, who must have either turned it off or bumped it off with perhaps a broom handle or the like? It turns that we had a visit from our garage door man just a few months ago for some relatively easy service and he actually didn't charge for that visit. So, when I reminded him of that episode, he just said let's make it a hundred dollars for the two visits. So it cost me $100 to be told to just flick on the light switch!
Finally, every year around Memorial Day I get out my copy of the book "Heroes Among Us" by John Ent. The book is about those alumni of Mechanicsburg High School in Pennsylvania who served in World War II. Thirty of those alumni died in the war and at this time of year I make a point to acknowledge the sacrifices of two of those, William Guyer, who lived across the street from us in Mechanicsburg and who died in New Guinea, and Ernie Martin, who lived just a few doors down the street, and died in Europe. And, with the D-Day anniversary, and that incredible reenactment of his parachute jump on D-Day by a 97-year-old veteran, I want to acknowledge Loraine Fetrow, a high school classmate who also jumped on D-Day. His injuries resulted in him being a paraplegic who attended our high school reunions and was a source of inspiration to us all.
Next column around July 1, hopefully.