Friday, December 26, 2003

"Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body," by Armand Marie Leroi

Armand Leroi is a developmental and evolutionary biologist, who writes about the biological implications of various birth defects and human variants, as well as tracing the historical records and mythology surrounding certain identifiable syndromes. Much of "Mutants" was review of basic information on developmental biology and teratology that I learned many years ago, but this was an engaging format for review of material that still fascinates me.

Each chapter describes and discusses a different kind of mutation, the first being conjoined twinning. Apparently the oldest depiction of conjoined twins comes from a Neolithic shrine in Anatolia. In the Renaissance, the birth of conjoined twins was sometimes taken as an allegory for political union. Scientifically, much of the debate has been to determine whether conjoined twins are the result of incomplete monozygotic twinning (a single embryo splits into two) or of fusion between two separate embryos. The author explains why neither of these theories fits the bill, and why an aberration of embryonic organization is more likely to be the culprit.

Situs inversus (organs arranged in the mirror image of the usual situs solitus positioning) also may come into the mix, as in twins fused side to side (rather than head to head, for example), 50% of right-side twins (from the twins' perspective) have situs inversus. Situs inversus is also a symptom of Kartagener's syndrome, appearing in 50% of afflicted individuals who are also plagued by a weak sense of smell and sterility. What common thread ties these symptoms together? A mutation in some one of the genes coding for the protein complex called dyenin, which leads to defective cilia (little, beating, cellular "hairs"), which render sperm immotile, and the lungs and bronchi unable to clear irritating particles, as well as rendering the developing embryo unable to tell the difference between right and left. With no right/left "awareness," the positioning of developing organs is a random occurrence.

Other chapters cover the cyclops in myth and reality (a malformation of the face and brain which is incompatible with life), sirenomelia (fusion of the lower limbs), limb deformities, dwarfism, albinism, hermaphroditism, hypertrichosis (excessive hairiness), and more.

Perhaps most interesting of all is his final discussion of the biology of beauty. The author observes that as much as the idealized vision of beauty may differ between cultures, a common thread is not simply health, but facial and bodily evidence for a lack of deleterious mutations.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Sleep Paralysis and Night Terrors

Caught part of a show on the Discovery Channel this afternoon that piqued my curiosity about the sleep paralysis phenomenon. The series is "Into the Unknown," and the episode was, "Unraveling the Mystery of Alien Abduction."

One of the things mentioned was that the brain releases paralyzing hormones during R.E.M. sleep, which prevent the sleeper from engaging in potentially injurious, dream-induced thrashing about. When one "wakes up" during this time, the paralysis is real until the hormones wear off, and dream state invades the "waking" consciousness. According to the first article cited below, something like 40 to 50 percent of people have had occasional incidents of this.

I know I've had some memorably unpleasant experiences of this sort. Fortunately few and far between, but vivid and shudder-causing even years later. Woken up unable to move, convinced that someone evil was lurking in the shadows ready to dismember me alive, eventually to wake up screaming loud enough to bring apartment neighbors around to make sure I was okay. Never imagined it was aliens or demons though...more like Jack the Ripper or Charles Manson. And, once awake, I was well aware I'd been having a particularly unpleasant nightmare.

Anyway, the show got me curious enough to dig a bit deeper. The Discovery Channel site itself was sadly information lite, but I did find a couple of interesting, related articles described below.


"Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?" by Susan Blackmore in the May/June 1998 issue of "The Skeptical Inquirer."

One theory of alien abductions is that the reported experience is a misinterpretation of the relatively common "night terror" or "sleep paralysis" phenomenon. Sleep paralysis is a sort of "waking dream" that occurs when one "wakes up," but is unable to move or speak. The person may have an overwhelming sense that someone is in the room, may hear noises or see strange lights. Sometimes there is a sense of being unable to breathe--as if someone seen or unseen is sitting on the victim's chest.



"The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar," by Joe Nickell in the December 1995 issue of the "Skeptical Briefs" newsletter.

Sleep paralysis has also been proposed as the origin of historical tales about nighttime visitation by demons or witches--such as succubi and incubi. Asian and African cultures have their own myths that fit the same pattern. In other words, the suggestion is that people interpret sleep paralysis experiences as having been controlled by whatever supernatural or alien force they're primed to believe in.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Geology and the Oracle of Delphi; Transmutation of Elements

"Questioning the Delphic Oracle," July 15, 2003, is behind a paywall at Scientific American. Here are my brief notes:

The temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the oracle housed there, was the most important religious site of the ancient Greek world. The oracle functioned through a specific person, the Pythia, who was chosen, trained, and prepared to speak for Apollo. The seat of the oracle was located in a cavern, where the Pythia would sit on a tripod mounted over a cleft in the rock. A pneuma rising from the cleft was believed to carry the word of Apollo into the inhaling Pythia, and thus from her lips to the questioner.

Contemporary written descriptions of the oracle were left by the essayist and biographer, Plutarch, who served as a priest of Apollo in the temple at Delphi. In describing the functioning of the oracle, Plutarch emphasized the importance of the preconditioning and purification of the Pythia, which rendered her sensitive to the pneuma. An ordinary person might catch a whiff of the gas without falling into an oracular trance. Plutarch described the gas as smelling like sweet perfume.

During normal sessions, the Pythia was in a mild trance, able to sit on the tripod, speak and answer questions. On one occasion, witnessed by Plutarch, temple authorities forced the Phythia to prophesy on an inauspicious day. The poor unlucky woman "groaned and shrieked, threw herself about violently and eventually rushed a the doors, where she collapsed...She died after a few days."

Around 1900, the idea of gasses stimulating the oracle was "debunked" by a young English classicist, Adolphe Paul Oppé. He concluded that there was no chasm and no gasses, and never had been, that no gas could produced the trance state typically described, and that Plutarch's account of the Pythia's violent frenzy was not credible. For many years, Oppé's account was taken as correct.

Recent geological surveys have traced fault lines through the temple foundations, providing a route by which spring waters and subterranean gasses could have reached the chamber where the Pythia sat. Also, it was learned that certain rock formations near the temple had a high petrochemical content, which could have been the source of methane, ethane, and ethylene found in water samples from the spring in the sanctuary. Ethylene has a sweet odor and, depending on the concentration, can induce either unconsciousness or a trance state remarkably like that described for the Pythia.



"Special Report: Transmutation. How to Create and Destroy Elements in a Flash of Light" New Scientist, August 23, 2003 (also behind a paywall).

"Alchemy is back in fashion, as physicists wielding powerful laser pulses convert one element to another....'We did an experiment the other day that turned gold into mercury'."

The alchemists of old were chemists, a branch of science which could never result in actual transmutation. True alchemy requires alteration of the atom's nucleus: adding or subtracting protons changes one element into another, while changing the number of neutrons alters the atom's stability. Since Ernest Rutherford split the atom in 1919, we've known that bombarding atoms with particles (neutrons or protons) can change one element into another. In the past, this has been done with nuclear reactors or particle accelerators, but the gold to mercury experiment was accomplished by means of the most powerful laser in the world, "Vulcan", housed at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

A timeline of the history of alchemy:

1900 BC -- Egyptian "Emerald Tablet" teaches that all form is a manifestation of one root

AD 250 -- Greek alchemist proposes that all matter is composed of the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth)

750 -- Egyptian alchemist proposes the idea of the philosopher's stone: a substance believed to be capable of performing transmutation of base metals into gold

16th century -- European alchemists split into two groups. One group focuses on the metaphysical aspects of alchemy. The other group pursued discovery of new compounds, leading to the science of chemistry

18th century -- Alchemy as a subject of study fades into obscurity

1919 -- Ernest Rutherford bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles, converting it to oxygen

1932 -- lithium atoms split into helium atom by means of bombardment with protons produced in an accelerator

1934 -- First demonstration of artificial radioactivity

1940 -- Creation of neptunium: the first element heavier than uranium

2000 -- Uranium split by means of a laser

2003 -- Gold transmuted to mercury, and oxygen to fluorine by means of a laser

Friday, September 26, 2003

Been shamefully neglecting this site, but I have been reading and listening to audio books. Books read over the last couple of months include Seabiscuit, and several of the volumes in Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome series about the life of Julius Caesar. I'm currently making notes from a couple of books about the life of Sir Walter Ralegh. Since the library copies I've been using have to be returned, I broke down and ordered myself a copy of Sir Walter Ralegh by Robert Lacey. Also ordered two books about magic and necromancy in ancient Rome by Daniel Ogden.

Memorable audiobooks include Salt, Band of Brothers, The Devil in White City, and a two- volume history of Rome by Cyril Robinson.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

"Humble Clay Tablets Are Greatest Loss to Science," Bob Holmes and James Randerson, New Scientist, 10 May 2003, page 8.

The looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad has been compared to the legendary destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria Egypt centuries ago. Archaeologists are less upset by the loss of sculptures that have already have been carefully studied and documented, than they are by the loss of thousands of untranslated, unphotographed ancient cuneiform tablets. These tablets are believed to have contained records of business and legal transactions, and even a second copy of the Gilgamesh epic (which might have filled in gaps left in the first known version of the tale). Even the "routine" documents, while perhaps not fascinating reading in themselves, provide a window into the operation of an ancient society: its organization, its priorities and concerns.

"There's a whole world that opens up as a document is deciphered. If it's never read, it's a loss to our collective past."

For a little more information on cuneiform: http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/CUNEI.HTM

Saturday, July 19, 2003

"England's El Dorado" by Fred Pearce, New Scientist. May 3rd, 2003

Inspired by the New-World-riches acquired by the Spanish king Phillip II, England's Queen Elizabeth I wanted treasure of her own. Martin Frobisher, a swashbuckling captain and friend of Francis Drake's, put himself forward as the man to lead an expedition to discover and claim the Northwest Passage. His first expedition, launched in 1576, ran afoul of local Inuits. Frobisher turned tail for home bringing only a captive Inuit man and a sample of black rock.

An Italian alchemist/assayer, Giovanni Baptista Agnello, claimed that the black rock contained gold. On the strength of these claims, a second expedition was soon launched which even included an assayer and a portable furnace. The second expedition returned to England in triumph, carrying 160 "tonnes" of black and red ore.

Elizabeth immediately ordered a third expedition to "Meta Incognita" (the Unknown Shore, now known as Baffin Island). And so in 1578, Frobisher set sail once more, with 15 ships and 400 men, including Cornish miners and 100 pioneers to found an Arctic settlement. Unbeknownst to Frobisher, the expedition also included a spy working for King Phillip of Spain.

The colony was never established. No more red ore was found. The ships returned home with 1200 tonnes of black rock, which turned out to contain no gold. Frobisher returned to piracy. Leftover ore was incorporated in to a wall (which can still be seen) around what was then one of Elizabeth's estates.

For more information on Elizabeth's maritime exploits (and lots of other cool stuff), see www.nmm.ac.uk, the website of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich England.

Some additional tidbits on the Frobisher expeditions comes from: Roanoke by Lee Miller; America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White by Paul Hulton, and The Queen's Conjurer by Benjamin Wooley.

Apparently, Frobisher's second expedition returned to England with three Inuits: a man, a woman, and her child. All three captives soon died: the man from injuries sustained during capture, the woman and child from fever. Yet before their deaths, their portraits were painted in water color by John White (later of the "lost colony" at Roanke Virginia).

John Dee, alchemist and mathematician, tried to teach "modern" navigational methods to Frobisher before the first expedition. He also lost a sizable personal investment in the second expedition.

Monday, May 26, 2003

"The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival," by Gabrielle Glaser

Gabrielle Glaser is a journalist, and "The Nose" is a journalistic smattering of tidbits about "anthropology and art, science and literature, sickness and health, sex and fertility, appearance and popular culture, mythology and memory." But to me, the most resonant parts of the book are the author's explorations of her own memory and the sometimes unexpected pairings between scent and event. For example: the aromas of baking remind her of her mother's sometimes irrational behavior; the smell of permanent-wave lotion reminds her of the sense of feminine bonding she'd felt as a girl in her grandmother's beauty shop. All great stuff that has had the desired effect of reawakening my desire to get back to the revisions on a certain story fermenting away on my hard drive...

Other chapters center on the long human history of unsanitary, stinky squalor, as well as the current American obsession with totally obliterating any hint of bodily odor. Descriptions of sinus surgery--from primitive (Freudian-era) operations performed in order to subdue female "hysteria" to modern attempts to cure sinusitis--sent shivers up my spine and made my sinuses ache. Then there was the technique of irradiating the adenoids by means of radium-tipped wire probes. From the 1940ies into the 1960ies, this was a popular technique for relieving sinus and respiratory problems. Many years later the stupidity became manifest in the form of increased frequencies of brain tumors and thyroid disorders in treated individuals.

Of more interest to me than the information on the history of fashions in rhinoplasty were the stories about temporary or permanent anosmia--absence of a sense of smell. The sense of smell can be damaged by sinusitis, certain medications, tobacco smoke, or constant exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace. The ability to smell decreases with age, and may be severely impaired by Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Among subjects showing moderate memory loss, poor performance on a test of ability to discriminate common odors was associated with a higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer's. She quotes from Proust that when nothing else tangible remains from the past, "the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."

Sunday, May 25, 2003

"What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained," by Robert L. Wolke

I'd heard about "What Einstein Told His Cook" some time ago, and thought it might be an interesting read, but I already had stacks of "research" for stories to do, and never quite got to it. Well, finally, I did. As with "Anatomy of a Dish," I still have the idea in mind that I might need to develop some science lessons for the school my son will be attending next year (it's an alternative school that relies heavily on parent participation, and science seems to be an area where they could use some particular help). I like the idea of using cooking chemistry and biology to get across broader lessons in the context of making something yummy.

So in that context, this book wasn't quite what I was hoping for (it's heavier on the "gee whiz" type of information than on real science), but it was a fun read and gave me a few ideas. I'll also be copying down the reference pages, and checking out some of this author's primary sources. Chapters cover: sugar, salt, fats, "chemicals" (i.e. baking powder, vinegar, lye), meat and fish, heat and cold, coffee and wine, microwave cooking, and tools and technology.

One potential experiment might come from dissolving sugar in water--with heating, more than two pounds of sugar (five cups) can be coaxed to dissolve in only one cup of water. Also, caramelization, which (strictly speaking) means "the heat-induced browning of a food that contains sugars, but no proteins. Um, caramel; um, peanut brittle. What I didn't know, is that caramelization is different from the Maillard reactions (high-temperature browning reactions that take place when sugars and starches are heated in the presence of proteins or amino acids).

 

Monday, April 28, 2003

"Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes" by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran & Edward M. Hubbard. www.sciam.com 4/25/2003

For people with synesthesia, the five senses (touch, hearing, taste, vision, and smell) get mixed up instead of remaining separate. These otherwise normal people might see printed black numbers in color, or smell flowers when listening to music. The first scientific description was published by Francis Galton, in an 1880 issue of the journal Nature. But the phenomenon has often been dismissed as a trick of memory, a symptom of hallucinogen use, or outright fakery.

The authors of the current review designed puzzle-like experiments that subjects could only solve if they, in fact, perceived the world as they claimed. For example, in a field of black number 5's, black number 2's were arranged in a triangle shape. Normal people had trouble picking out the triangle. To synesthetes, the 2's actually appeared to be a different color from the 5's, and so the triangle was easily distinguished from its background.

The cause appears to be some form of "cross-wiring" or chemical transmitter "cross-activation" of higher order sensory processing in the brain. The authors cite previous research as showing synesthesia to be seven times more common in "creative" people than in the general population, and suggest a link between synesthesic thinking and aptitude for metaphor. They note that all humans have this ability to some degree, and speculate that there may be an evolutionary link between cross-modal (across senses) synthesis of experience, high-level perceptual thinking, and the human facility with language and abstraction.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

"Silence is fatal", "Powerless to stop the spread", "Can we contain SARS", "Where did this deadly pneumonia come from?" and "Amorous worms reveal the effect of Chernobyl fallout on wildlife." In: New Scientist. 12 April 2003.


Not surprisingly, SARS is the big topic in science news magazines at the moment. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is currently believed to be caused by a coronavirus--a family of viruses that cause severe illnesses in animals, as well as colds and intestinal illness in humans. The closest matches to known viruses appear to be with avian infectious bronchitis and bovine coronavirus. An avian origin for the disease fits with reports that the first cases of SARS in Guangdong China were among bird handlers. Different coronaviruses swap genes freely, or random mutations can cause a virus to suddenly change tissue and host preference.


Somewhat encouragingly, it seems that the SARS virus is carried by large droplets that are coughed out--rather than the fine aerosol droplets that can carry flu virus for long distances. This means that infection only spreads by close contact with infected individuals, or by hand to mouth contact with something (doorknob, stair rail) that an infected individual has contaminated. So, frequent hand washing with soap is probably a more effective protection against SARS that wearing a paper surgical mask.


It seems that biggest reason SARS has spread so far and created such a stir is that the Chinese government, fearing economic repercussions, kept the outbreak a secret until it was too late to contain it. According to "New Scientist" WHO is currently working with the WTO to try to develop a plan for compensating countries facing economic loss as a result of reporting a possible outbreak of new, dangerous infectious diseases--in hopes of countering tendencies to secretiveness.


As for the article on amorous worms... Talk about a hook. How's this: "Worms contaminated by radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear accident have started having sex with each other instead of on their own"?


Apparently several species of lake-dwelling, sedimentary worms have switched to sexual, rather than asexual, reproduction as a result of the heavy radioactive contamination of the Chernobyl area. Theory is that sex promotes the spreading of any genes affording protection from radiation-induced damage.

~~~~
Someone from my work sent this excellent link on risk communication, risk management and SARS: http://www.psandman.com/col/SARS-1.htm

Saturday, April 05, 2003

"A Summer Plague: Polio and its Survivors" by Tony Gould

"A Summer Plague" contains both a history of the polio epidemic and a series of biographical experiences of polio survivors. Biographical information includes the author (who contracted the disease in 1959, at age 20), FDR, rock musician Ian Drury, as well as others affected to greater or lesser degree. The overall focus is more on the social consequences of the disease than on the scientific aspects--though that focus includes controversies and conflicts among the scientific community, as well as between scientists and research-funding organizations. I found it fascinating to see the same kind of clashes of personalities and ambition among physician-scientists in the 1930ies and 1950ies as can be seen in laboratories today--and which has been seen at the cutting edge of medical research since the days of Pasteur, Koch, and Lister.


As an endemic disease, polio is believed to date back over three thousand years. An Egyptian stele, dating from the 18th dynasty (1580-1350 BC) depicts a man with a withered leg--characteristic of polio's lingering effects. It is believed that for most of human history the disease lurked in unhygienic conditions, probably infecting most infants at such an early age that they either died or recovered completely.

Not until modern times, when most people in the developed world escaped early infection, did the disease begin to roll through populations on a massive scale, leaving a trail of paralyzed children and adults. In the absence of any clear understanding of how to control the spread of polio, the New York epidemic of 1916 was dealt with by strict quarantine, close scrutiny of immigrants (Italians, in particular), and rigidly-enforced sanitation laws. There were stories of children being taken from their homes to hospital at gunpoint, because of suspected infection. Cats and dogs, erroneously suspected of carrying the disease, were rounded up and put down.

Polio was known to be a viral disease as early as 1908, but a century later a cure has yet to be developed, and a safe and reliable vaccine wasn't readily available until the late 1950ies. Early virologists were hamstrung by a number of incorrect beliefs about the virus--perhaps the most serious being a stubborn insistence that it was a respiratory, rather than enteric disease, which traveled directly from the nasal passages to the nervous tissue. Because of this belief, vaccination to produce blood-borne immunity was considered by some prominent scientists to be pointless. Picric acid and alum nasal sprays were tried as a preventative in the mid 1930ies, but succeeded only in permanently destroying the sense of smell for some patients. Results of contemporaneous attempts to develop a vaccine, despite doubts about the approach, ranged from ineffective to dangerous.

In 1940, the larger-than-life and ever controversial Sister Kenny arrived in the U.S. from Australia, bringing along her unorthodox (at the time) system of treating polio patients by getting their paralyzed muscles moving as soon as possible. Patients loved her; doctors hated the assurance with which she ridiculed the standard treatment of immobilizing paralyzed patients in splints or casts.

I'm afraid the book's overdue, and can't be renewed anymore, so it has to go back to the library today. Or else I'd write more about the famous Salk/Sabin rivalry and the controversy over live versus killed vaccine. I'll just date myself by mentioning some of my earliest memories of walking over to the local elementary school with my parents to receive my sugar cubes of vaccine. Polio is not quite dead in the wild yet; may it soon be so.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

"Demon-Haunted Brain" by Michael Shermer. Scientific American online, February 10, 2003

"If the brain mediates all experience, then paranormal phenonmena are nothing more than neuronal events....The fate of the paranormal and the supernatural is to be subsumed into the normal and the natural....In reality, all experience is mediated by the brain."

Well, yeah, of course, but what's interesting is that experiments are beginning to pin down regions of the brain and types of stimuli capable of inducing perceptual alterations that might be interpreted (presumably depending upon one's cultural context) as anything from out-of-body experiences, to alien abductions, to persecution by spirits or incubi and succubi. For example, neuroscientist Michael Persinger can induce abnormal perceptions by subjecting experimental subjects to stimulation of their temporal lobes by "patterns of magnetic fields." A Swiss neuroscientist induced out-of-the-body experiences in an epileptic woman through electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus in the temporal lobe. Other studies have looked at brain scans of Buddist monks and Franciscan nuns deep in prayer, and found "strikingly low" activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe. The study authors have named this area of the brain the "orientation association area" (OAA). The OAA apparently provides the sense of distinction between self and nonself--allowing a sense of orientation in physical space. Without it, lines blur: nuns may feel the presence of God, alien abductees believe they have been floated out of their beds and probed...


Monday, March 24, 2003

"In the Shadow of Polio; A Personal and Social History" by Kathyrn Black. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. 1996

I found "In the Shadow of Polio" while searching for references on polio, which I'm hoping will help me in revising a story I've been working on for some time. Though my story ("The Proust Effect") is set in a relatively distant future, my protagonist has been disabled by a disease then extinct outside the laboratory. She contracted it from her parents, who were infected due to a laboratory accident, and who died before their doctors realized what they had. Polio, which is nearly extinct in the wild now, seemed like the best candidate for what I was after. So, I searched the topic on Amazon, picked out a couple of books I thought looked interesting, and requested them from the local library.

"In the Shadow of Polio" is a very personal tale. The author, Kathyrn Black, is a journalist who as a young child lost her mother, Virginia, to polio. In trying to understand what happened to her childhood and her family, Kathryn traces her mother's story within the greater context of the polio epidemics of the late 1940ies and early 1950ies. Virginia's case of polio started with a backache and generalized, flu-like symptoms. Within days she was paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe without the assistance of an iron lung. "Spinal polio" attacks the motor nerve cells of the spinal cord--resulting in paralysis, but no loss of sensation or pain. "Bulbar polio" attacks the cranial nerves that control the pharynx, soft palate, and larynx; swallowing, speaking, and breathing become difficult or impossible. Virginia Black had both forms of the disease.

After months in a Phoenix hospital near her home, Virginia was moved to a respirator convalescent center in Seattle. Though her husband joined her in Seattle, and was able to visit regularly, the children did not see their mother from the time she was first diagnosed until she finally came home to them, two years later. Though she was never again able to breathe unassisted, Virginia graduated from an iron lung to a "rocking bed"--the head to foot rocking motion allowed gravity to assist the filling and emptying of the lungs. Then, she was able to return home. But her rocking bed was a fixture in the family dining room for only a few months before Virginia Black died of unclear proximate causes resulting from her condition.

The book also addresses societal and medical historical aspects of polio. Hospital isolation and quarantine had become established during the 1916 epidemic, and persisted into the fifties, even after it was understood that quarantine was useless as a preventative measure (because the disease was spread by those with mild, undiagnosed infections). As the author notes, "The line between quarantine and shunning [became] muddled" because public fear of polio was equal to or greater than public compassion for the disease's victims. Why were some individuals spared, or only moderately affected, while others suffered extensive and permanent disability? "...many people wanted to believe that something, some mistake, misbehavior, or characteristic, distinguished the stricken from the hearty. For many people, believing that only luck divided them not only was too frightening but also conflicted with their psychological or religious beliefs. ... The spared, it seems, want to see in the stricken evidence of justice served, to find meaning and purpose in random disasters, because then they can believe they are safe."

There is still no cure for polio, although thanks to vaccination, the U.S. has been free of wild polio (i.e. endemic in the population) since 1979. Other polio-free areas include the entire Pan American region, Western Europe, countries of the Pacific and Pacific Rim, the Persian Gulf states, and many African countries. Most current cases occur in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt. Once an effective vaccine was developed, research into the disease essentially stopped. Only in recent years, has interest begun mounting in "postpolio syndrome," a deterioration in the condition of former polio patients who have been stable for many years.

I have vivid memories of walking with my parents to the local school to get my sugar cube vaccine. It was a huge relief to everyone to finally have a way to make their families safe. I also had a childhood friend whose parents were both in wheelchairs because of this awful disease.

Friday, March 21, 2003

"Vampire bat saliva compound could help treat strokes." Scientific American.com. January 10, 2003.

"Nifty spittle: compound in bat saliva may aid stroke patients." By Nathan Seppa. Science News Week of Jan 18, 2003; Vol. 163, No. 3.

Liberatore, GT et al (2003) "Vampire bat salivary plasminogen activator (desmoteplase); a unique fibrinolytic enzyme that does not promote neurodegeneration." Stroke. 34:537-.

The first two are just news items about recent research investigating the possible medical uses of anticoagulants isolated from the saliva of vampire bats. The third reference is for the original scientific report as published in the journal "Stroke." I had fun typing "vampire" into their database to pull up the abstract ;->.

The bats' saliva contains an enzyme that thins their victims' blood, causing it to flow freely, and hence allowing the bats to feed. Apparently the bat enzyme, "Desmodus rotundus salivary plasminogen activator" (DSPA or desmoteplase) has shown promise as a possible replacement for tPA (tissue type plasminogen activator) in breaking up the clots which block blood flow to the brain during an ischemic stroke. As currently used in treating stroke victims, tPA must be given within three hours of stroke onset, or it may do more damage to the brain than the ischemia itself. The bat enzyme doesn't seem to have the same brain-damaging drawback, and is currently being tested in humans.


Monday, February 24, 2003

"A Scattering of Jades" by Alexander C. Irvine

I saw a review of this book--I'm pretty sure it was the NY Times Book Section--and knew immediately I had to read it: Aaron Burr, P.T. Barnum, Aztecs, Mammoth Caves... How could I resist? While this book is categorized as "historical fantasy," the Aztec pantheon of bloodthirsty gods is just such ripe fodder for horror... I also love the ants that come marching through at odd moments; it's bizarre how menacing an endless line of those small creatures can be.

The evil nemesis of "Scattering" is a resurrected, mummified "chacmool" (a sort of human-jaguar-feathered-serpent), and the descriptions of this creature as it changes and combines the characteristics of its many aspects are mesmerizing. The chacmool is a servant/incarnation of Tlaloc, the god of earth and rain, or "He Who Makes Things Grow," and among his other tricks, he derails a train by causing dead wood to sprout and grow branches that entwine and disable the machine.

I'm not familiar with Mammoth Caves, and so can't speak to the accuracy of detail, but the descriptions were at once realistic and eerie. While I doubt such a link was the author's intention, I found myself reminded of viewing a chacmool after climbing up an ancient Toltec-Mayan temple that is completely encased inside the newer "El Castillo" at Chichen Itza. The steps were so worn as to be almost unnegotiable, and condensation from the breathing crush of visitors was so heavy that it ran down the walls like rainwater.

I only wish "Scattering" had included more about the Burr-Blennerhassett connection and the conspiracy to establish a separate western country with its own government, as well as a more prominent role for P.T. Barnum and his New York museum. It's amazing where matching up timelines in different parts of the world can get you. And what effect did Nelson's success at Trafalgar have on politics in America? Hmmm. But then I guess that would be rewriting the book to tell my own story...

Monday, February 17, 2003

"The Pursuit of Oblivion; A Global History of Narcotics" by Richard Davenport-Hines.

I spotted this on the new books shelf in the library, and picked it up in hopes of learning more about the history, uses, and effects of laudanum--for a current WIP. In fact it's a pretty interesting book, well referenced from a historical standpoint, that focuses on opiates, but also covers a variety of illicit drugs--from prescription sleeping and diet drugs to marijuana and cocaine. I eventually gave up on the last couple of chapters, just because I lost interest in the debate between regulation and prohibition. Not that these issues aren't important, I'm just personally more interested in the science and the history.

While the properties of opium have apparently been known for thousands of years, the development of what we know as laudanum (a cordial of opium in wine or spirits) is credited to the English physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689). Its usefulness as a painkiller and soporific were instantly recognized, as was its ability to induce dependency. That knowledge, of course, didn't stop over-prescription by unqualified practitioners.

An offhand comment that has potential: "Francis Bacon (1561-1626) claimed that by mixing myrrh with human blood he discovered the secret of immortality." Hmmm.

From as early as the 18th century, opium seems to have had a recognized usefulness in controlling women--from alleviating PMS to relieving the nausea of early pregnancy. In the 19th century, Prime Minister Gladstone's sister Helen became an addict, apparently as an escape from her oppressive family. Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) was addicted since girlhood, a habit she was only able to reduce, not entirely relinquish, upon marriage and motherhood. Various opium-containing patent medicines, sold without prescription, were used by parents to quiet their children--resulting in not infrequent fatalities.

War also has a long-term historical connection with increased drug use--and not just as a result of pain control for the wounded. The author notes claims that during the Napoleonic Wars, French army surgeons administered opium with cayenne pepper to revive exhausted soldiers.

Then there were the opium dens of fact and fiction...the latter perhaps most famously in Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Lady Theodora Guest was guided as a tourist though San Francisco's Chinatown in 1894, and described the sight of an opium den as "...like a wine-cellar, or still more a mushroom-house...rather horrible; but in no way as degrading a sight as that of the ordinary European drunkard." She described the smokers as lying on shelves, like triple bunks, each with his own pipe, lamp, and little balls of opium.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

"Scent-sational Science: To trace the course of evolution, Kim Steiner follows his nose" Science Now, Newsletter of the California Academy of Sciences.


I noticed blurb about this article on a display at the Academy, and immediately (right at a computer in the museum library) went to the website to look it up.


My interest: I have a WIP featuring an alien species that communicates by scent. Representatives of a major Earth perfume company are involved in the action as well. So for me, this article was an exercise in fiction meets reality.


Dr. Steiner is studying the symbiotic relationships between floral scents and the pollinating insects they depend on to reproduce. He recently returned from South Africa, where he was collecting scents produced by unique species of orchids. The scents he was able to chemically "trap" in the wild, were then sent to the laboratory of Givaudan, a major perfume developer. The specialized lab was able to extract the scents and chemically analyze the component parts of a complex mixture--something my alien species are also experts on. Dr. Steiner will use the data to trace the evolutionary history of orchid species. Givaudan may get a new perfume out of the deal, and I may be able to tune up the details of my story.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

"Born to the Purple: the Story of Porphyria" & "New Light on Medicine" Scientific American (www.sciam.com) December 16, 2002.

A medical explanation for vampires and werewolves? Food for thought about photosensitive in plants and animals, and the relationship between these two Kingdoms.

The porphyrias are a family of metabolic disorders, all of which involve abnormalities of the body's heme-building pathway. Heme is a component of the oxygen transport molecule, hemoglobin, and is assembled in a series of eight steps. If any one step fails, due to genetic or environmental causes, intermediate products of earlier steps in the sequence (porphyrin intermediates) may build up to toxic levels in the body.

Apart from leading to port-wine colored urine, porphyrin intermediates may accumulate in the skin. The presence of unmodified porphyrins in the skin is usually not a problem, but these molecules are related to chlorophyll (the plant pigment that absorbs the energy of sunlight in photosynthesis), and can be similarly excited by exposure to sunlight.

The nature and severity of symptoms varies with the specific disorder, but if left untreated include: trances, seizures, and hallucinations (the affliction of "Mad" King George III of Britain); photosensitivity leading to blisters and burns with exposure to sunlight (condition claimed for the children in "The Others"); slow healing associated with scaring and abnormal hair growth (hirsutism on the face); and even disfigurement of the facial features by erosion and scaring, giving an appearance expected for "the undead." Such red blood cells as are produced may be abnormal and rupture, leading to hemolytic anemia.

Garlic as well as sunlight may exacerbate symptoms and discomfort; phlebotomy (drawing blood and so removing heme intermediates from circulation) can help, as might (in theory) drinking blood--as the heme pigment can survive digestion and be absorbed from the intestine. Modern treatment, however, uses transfusions of blood or heme to relieve the symptoms of an attack.

Monday, January 20, 2003

"Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads; The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums" by Stephen T. Asma

The first time I heard about this book--something on NPR, I'm sure, but I can't recall which program or whether it was a review or an interview with the author--I knew I had to read it. I've an avid aficionado of natural history museums, and have spent many a happy hour studying exhibits in the Smithsonian, the California Academy of Sciences, and the British Museum of Natural History. It's a wide-ranging book that touches on the history of natural history museums and collections, as well as on the intersection between natural sciences and cultural influences on the conduct and teaching of science. Along the way, he discusses techniques of preservation. The author is a philosopher, rather than a scientist, and his observations are both provocative and interesting.

One of the earliest public museums was founded by Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was housed in an edifice that we had pointed out to us during a boat trip on the Neva River last summer, but I don't believe the building actually houses a museum anymore. Anyway, Peter started his "cabinet of curiosities" with a couple of living malformed humans, as well as the pickled heads of his and his wife's (former) lovers. The author then segues into a discussion of techniques of preservation: taxidermy, skeletalization, and "wet preps" or chemical "pickling." This bit didn't hold anything new for me (after too many years as a student of biology and anthropology). Once, during the year I took off between college and grad school, I even took a museum taxidermy class, so I already some understanding of modern techniques for a natural-looking preparation.

Next time we're in London, I have to see about getting to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons; and if possible, I also want to see the Hunterian Museum in Glascow (which houses a number of anatomical illustrations by Jan Van Rymsdyk). I have to do some research on John Hunter--a Scottish surgeon/anatomist (1728-1793) who left a collection of 13,687 preserved biological specimens. This character, his experiments, his collection, his brother William, and his colleagues...looks like a potential goldmine for story ideas. He employed "one of the greatest scientific illustrators who ever graced the planet," in the person of Jan Van Rymsdyk. Van Rymsdyk began to create anatomical illustrations for William Hunter in 1750. Where he came from before that...there are no records. But he illustrated William Hunter's The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus(1774)--a painstaking work created over a period of 22 years, and published with no mention of the illustrator.

In fact, I think I'm going to have to try to buy this book--it's packed with references and ideas, and I'm not sure how long the library will let me hang on to it.

The author also makes interesting points about taxonomy (a subject I had to study ad nauseum as a graduate student in physical anthropology). Taxonomy is all about categorizing plants and animals so our paltry little brains can make sense of the world's biota. These days, species are scientifically arrayed according to evolutionary relationships (elucidated as much by similarities in DNA as by anatomical structure), rather than by appearance or function (or by consideration of culinary usage as touched on in another book blogged on here, "Anatomy of a Dish"). Seems like some interesting opportunities for SF exploitation here...

The final major topic of the book concerns the style of museum displays: how they educate, how they reflect their culture of origin, how they seek to conform to cultural assumptions--or to confront such assumptions. I've always looked at museums in a much more personal way (what did *I* want to learn there); next time I'll make a point to consider the bigger picture.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

"The Alchemist's Door" by Lisa Goldstein

The only other book of Lisa Goldstein's I've read is "Dark Cities Underground," which I absolutely loved. When I ran across a blurb for "The Alchemist's Door" (I can't recall where, it might have been on Lisa's website), I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. Her central character is Dr. John Dee, an historical "renaissance man" who was a scientist, mathematician, geographer, astrologer, alchemist, mystic, and advisor to England's Queen Elizabeth I. He is also credited with having initiated the concept of a British Empire. So, the subject of Lisa's book grabbed my attention, as I have copious notes for a WIP-in-waiting that also takes off from the recorded history of this man and events of his time. So, my first thought was one of panic: "Oh, no. I'll never be able to write my story, because Lisa is too wonderful, and she'll say everything that needs to be said on the subject." Fortunately for my peace of mind, "The Alchemist's Door" works with a much different aspect of Dr. Dee's adventures and connections than what I had planned as a jumping off point for fiction. She follows his real travels to Eastern Europe and takes off from there, as his fate becomes intertwined with the contemporaneous Rabbi Judah Loew, the legendary creator of the golem--a clay "man" who defended Prague's Jewish Quarter from persecution.


Now I just have to go out and find a new book by Liz Williams (this one I learned about from the New York Time Book Review), called "The Poison Master." From their review, it looks like Dr. Dee is a fairly minor character, but I still feel compelled to learn what an established pro has done with him. Not to mention that the book sounds pretty darn interesting :-)

Thursday, January 09, 2003

"John Adams" by David McCullough


I listen to audio books while I play taxi driver for my kids, and I've been working on this best-selling, definitive biography of John Adams since last August, and just finished it today! Nearly 14 hours of listening time... The man lived a long, productive, and fascinating life, was a material contributor to so many of the seminal events in the founding of our country, and had such contentious/affectionate relationships with other founding fathers that his story can't help but fascinate. I'm not trying to fully review books here, but rather to comment on (often obscure) points which stand out to me personally. Politics pretty much always sucked. Adams and Washington both disliked political parties, and knew that such factions had the potential to undermine fragile democracy; indeed, they were pretty much guaranteed to do so. So it would seem that nothing much has changed. In a way, that's a comfort. We've hung on so far, despite the petty infighting and poor decision-making. So, maybe we can carry on carrying on after all.


With respect to a current WIP (work in progress) of my own, I've been researching medical practices of the Revolutionary War era. I was interested to learn that John Adams' daughter underwent a mastectomy in order to try to stop a breast cancer in its tracks. I found it remarkable at a time in which there was no effective anesthesia, not to mention antibiotics. Nor was there the most basic understanding of the concept of germs--or attendant understanding of the need for asepsis. Never mind that the most typical treatment for disease was blood-letting (a practice which is thought to have killed George Washington). The operation appears to have been a success, although her recovery was agonizing. Sadly her cancer did recur and was eventually responsible for her death.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

"The Anatomy of a Dish" by Diane Forley with Catherine Young.

I read about this book in the New York Times book review magazine, and decided I needed to have a look. Unfortunately I have to take it back to the library tomorrow, as someone else has a hold on it, and I haven't really had as much time with it as I would have liked. Apart from some rather yummy-looking recipes (such as puttanesca vinaigrette, page 56), the book considers the botanical relationships between food plants along with their edibility characteristics. So, for example, the taxonomic family Chenopodiaceae includes beets, quinoa, spinach, and swiss chard; the flavor characteristics ranging from sweet to mildly bitter; and the edible parts ranging from root to seed to leaves. She also categorizes food plants by the time of year they are usually at their peak. I think the book could provide an interesting basis for developing projects for a middle-school science class. I'm keeping an eye out for such things, as my son may be attending a school next year that involves parent participation. Food and botany, food and chemistry...these are things which interest me, so maybe I could do something with them that would interest the kids. In the meantime, I found some of the thoughts in this book dovetailed neatly with another book I'm reading (and will blog on when I've finished it), "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads," by Stephen Asma. More to come, but he has a chapter on the development of taxonomic systems (i.e. methods of categorizing living things so the human mind can cope with the diversity), and categorization by flavor is an intriguing tangent.

Friday, January 03, 2003

"A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse" by Ralph Blumenthal; The Sunday New York Times, December 29, 2002.


I hadn't noticed this article in skimming the paper, but luckily my husband pointed it out to me. Apparently the country of Malawi is currently "in the grip of a vampire panic." Rumors have spread that the government is colluding with vampires, and a frightened population has attacked suspected "vampire helpers." The author points out that Malawi (a land-locked country in Southern Africa) suffers from widespread starvation and AIDS. Also, the country's "first and only democratically elected president" is currently trying to overturn a two-term limit and remain in power.


The author of the article quotes a couple of book authors on the social phenomenon of vampire mythologies: Nina Auerbach (Our Vampires, Ourselves), and David J. Skal (The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror). Both comment on the relationship between real fears originating from social upheaval and a surfacing of supernatural fears. I'm not familiar with these authors or their books, but I'll have to have a look at the library.

In short, the theme of the article is that dangerous and uncertain times stimulate belief in undead feeding off the living. I would add, perhaps, that superstition--such as a complex vampire mythology--also gives the helpless some illusion of control. If you put garlic around the room, the vampire can't get you... Infectious disease, starvation, bloodthirsty enemies, and oppressive governments may not be so easy to avoid.