Analyzing Healthy Weight

What’s the “right” weight? It’s a question that doctors and their patients have wrestled with for years, and it’s clear that the standards are changing as human diet, nutrition, activity level, and general health are changing. Humans during the 1400s, being subject to periodic famines, plagues, and disease that stunted their growth, and engaging in day-long physical labor to put modest amounts of food on the table, probably looked a lot different from modern Americans. Even in the last century, the standards have changed. Consider, for example, that the average G.I. in World War II was about 5′ 8″ and weighed about 150 pounds. These days, you don’t see many 150-pound men in the average American city.

So what’s the “right” weight now, in an era of relative food abundance and modern medical treatments for human disease, where many people work at sedentary desk jobs?

For years, the accepted method for determining health weight has been the body mass index. The BMI was simple: it took your weight in kilograms and divided it by your height in meters, squared. The target zone for a healthy you was a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9. Now there is a debate about whether the BMI is really an effective tool, because it doesn’t consider where human fat cells have accumulated. That’s important, because the location of fat cells matters to human health and is related to conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. Abdominal fat–that “stubborn belly fat” that clickbait articles claim you can melt away with some “weird trick” or special drink–is more unhealthy than fat that accumulates around the hips, and “visceral fat,” the abdominal fat that builds up around the internal organs, is especially harmful.

As a result, some researchers are urging that use of the BMI be replaced by a focus on the waist to hip ratio. The waist to hip ratio is easy to use, too–you apply a tape measure to your waistline and your hips, and determine the ratio between them. Lower waist to hip ratios mean lower abdominal fat accumulation. And a recent study found that the waist-to-hip ratio was a better predictor of early mortality than the BMI.

There’s no doubt that losing excess weight is helpful to overall health; your hips, knees, and ankles will thank you. But the distribution of weight also matters. We’ll probably never avoid the scale at the doctor’s office, but the predictive value of the waist-to-hip ratio may mean your doctor will be taking out a tape measure, too, at your next exam.

The DART Hits The Bullseye

Our space neighborhood is filled with comets, meteors, asteroids, and other random bits of rocky flotsam and jetsam, any one of which could come plummeting through the Earth’s atmosphere and slam into our planet. Over Earth’s long history, many objects have done precisely that. That reality is of no small concern, because if the object is large enough, the impact could have catastrophic, climate-altering consequences. Some scientists theorize, for example, that the extinction of the dinosaurs occurred because of the after-effects of a gigantic and devastating meteor strike that occurred 65 million years ago.

The fact that humans haven’t had to deal with a similar random, collision-caused disaster has been the product of sheer dumb luck–until now. Thanks to the scientists and engineers at NASA, and the successful test on Monday of a suicidal spacecraft called the Double Asteroid Rendezvous Test (“DART”) probe, we’ve finally got a fighting chance.

The DART mission sought to show that the paths of killer asteroids could be deflected away from Earth by being rammed by a spacecraft. The target of the mission, at a distance about 7 million miles from our planet, was an asteroid called Dimorphos, and the goal was to change its orbit around a larger asteroid called Didymos. The DART probe, which was about the size of a golf cart and weighed 1,320 pounds, slammed into Dimorphos at a brisk 14,000 miles per hour rate, with the goal of nudging the asteroid into a speedier orbit around Didymos. Happily, the DART probe hit the Dimorphos bullseye, and as it approached it provided a continuous stream of photos, like the one above, that made the asteroid target look like a rock-studded egg in space. The ultimate crash of the DART into the target also was captured by many Earth-based telescopes. You can see the video of the collision taken from one telescope here.

So, did the ultimate sacrifice willingly undertaken by the DART probe successfully change the orbit of Didymos, as we hhope? We don’t know for sure, yet, but we’ll find out as the asteroid is monitored, and its orbit path is measured, over the next few months. But just being able to navigate a golf cart-sized spacecraft moving at 14,000 miles an hour into a moving asteroid seven million miles away is a pretty good start to developing a planetary defense system that will protect our species, and other inhabitants of planet Earth, from the ravages of killer asteroids.

Bang, Or No Bang?

Science can be great. The world of science, in most cases, allows for vigorous debate, even about the most fundamental, basic, long considered to be settled concepts–and as new data comes in, the process happens over and over again. Sometimes the novel theory actually topples the old assumptions–as when Copernicus argued that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or Einstein’s thought experiments and calculations dislodged Newtonian theories about gravity. At other times, the new theory is shown to be a bunch of hooey, and the product of shoddy science and cherry-picked data.

There’s a vigorous argument along those lines going on now in the world of astronomy and cosmology. The issue is whether the incredible photographs being produced by the James Webb Space Telescope are inconsistent with the “Big Bang” theory–the widely accepted concept that the universe started billions of years ago with an enormous explosion that occurred everywhere at once and has been expanding in all directions ever since.

An article published in early August argued that the Webb telescope photos are inconsistent with the Big Bang theory because the distant galaxies shown in the photos look different than what the Big Bang theory predicts. Other scientists reject that argument as science denialism; they note that while the Webb telescope images of faraway galaxies show structures that are more evolved and coherent than was expected, that result does not undercut the Big Bang and in fact is consistent with the theory. As one article published earlier this month on space.com puts it: “The surprising finding that galaxies in the early universe are more plentiful, and a little more massive and structured than expected, doesn’t mean that the Big Bang is wrong. It just means that some of the cosmology that follows the Big Bang requires a little bit of tweaking.” 

The constant revisiting and revision of theories as new data comes in is what makes science so cool. The Webb telescope, the data it is gathering, and the discussion it is generating, are doing exactly what the process of science contemplates.

20 Quadrillion Ants

How many ants are there in the world? It’s the kind of dreamy question you might have briefly asked yourself as a kid on a lazy summer day as you were checking out an anthill that was teeming with the busy little creatures, just in one corner of your backyard. Sometimes, though, the subject of a child’s idle wonder becomes a scientist’s challenge–and Nature has published an article that tries to answer that question.

The first step in the challenge is trying to come up with a mechanism that would allow you to approximate the number of ants on Earth, because you obviously couldn’t count them, one by one, even if all of those notoriously active insects would oblige you by holding still. To give you a sense of scale, there are 15,700 named species and subspecies of ants. They are found in and on virtually every piece of dry land in the world and in the widest possible range of habitats, including cities, deserts, woodlands, grasslands, and especially rain forests. The National Wildlife Federation website states that the only land areas that don’t have ants are Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, and a handful of islands.

So how can the Nature researchers hope to count them? By piecing together the findings of 489 independent studies that have attempted to count ant populations on every continent and in every habitats where they are found, using standard ant-counting methods. By extrapolating from this direct data, the researchers estimate that there are 20 quadrillion–that’s 20,000,000,000,000,000–ants in the world. That’s a lot of ants. But that finding admittedly doesn’t give a complete picture, because there are no studies of how many ants live underground or in trees. 20 quadrillion therefore could easily be an undercount.

But the Nature researchers didn’t stop there. They wondered how much all of those ants would weigh, did the math, and concluded that the 20 quadrillion ants would have a biomass of 12 million tons of carbon, which is more than all of the world’s birds and animals combined. (Carbon accounts for about half the weight of ants.) And, as the researchers point out, we should be glad there are so many ants around, because they play a crucial role in the ecosystem in multiple ways, including serving as food for many species.

Ants are also kind of fascinating to watch on a lazy summer afternoon, too.

Skin Story

Many of us have spent significant chunks of time this summer dabbing and smearing lotion on ourselves and our family members. It used to be called suntan lotion; now it’s called sunscreen or even sunblock. Some worried people search constantly for ever-higher SPF numbers due to fear of sunburns and dermatologist cautions about sun-related skin cancers.

The sunscreen issue is interesting when you think about it. Our ancient ancestors obviously spent a lot of time outdoors, hunting and gathering, and they didn’t have ready access to drugstores that provided rows of 50 SPF lotions. So how did they deal with the sun?

I ran across an interesting article by an anthropologist that tries to answer that question. He notes that the early humans didn’t fear the sun, thanks to their skin–specifically, the crucial protection provided by the epidermis, the outer layer of skin that adds new cells and thickens with increasing exposure to sunshine in the spring and summer, and eumelanin, a molecule that absorbs visible light and ultraviolet light and causes skin to darken due to sunshine. Because early humans didn’t radically shift their sun exposure by, say, hopping on a jet to Costa Rica in the dead of winter, their skin could adjust to their local conditions and provide all the sun protection they needed. In effect, their skin became well adapted to providing the protection needed in their local area. (Of course, they may have looked a bit leathery by modern standards, but they weren’t worried about such things in their desperate bid for survival in an unpredictable and unforgiving world.)

The article posits that the change in the relationship between humans, skin, and sunshine occurred about 10,000 years ago, when home sapiens began to develop more of an indoor life and exposure to the sun began to distinguish the lower class from the upper class. People became more mobile, too. The disconnect was exacerbated when people started to take vacations to warmer climates that abruptly changed sun conditions without a ramp-up period allowing their skin to adapt. In short, the trappings of civilization and class removed the previous balance between skin and local conditions and deprived our skin of the time needed to adjust to gradually increasing sunshine.

Does that mean you should try to recreate the former balance by staying in the same place, spending as much time as possible outdoors, and accepting the wrinkles and leathery look that are the likely result? The article says no, because your skin probably isn’t matched to your current location, and your indoor time is going to interfere with the process. That means we all need to keep dabbing and smearing to prevent sunburns and skin damage.

Incidentally, the highest-level sunscreen that is available now is 100 SPF, which is supposed to block 99 percent of ultraviolet rays. The ancients would shake their heads in wonder,

Ancient Surgery (And Post-Operative Care)

One of the most tantalizing aspects of human history is how little we know about our ancient forebears. Once you go back more than 5,000 or 10,000 years, to the period before written records and the age of surviving structures like the Sphinx and the pyramids of Egypt, there is little specific evidence of what humans did or how they lived. And the great length of that unknown period of human prehistory, stretching back tens of thousands of years, dwarfs the length of the historical record.

We tend to assume that our prehistoric ancestors were crude, ignorant people who hunted, ate, reproduced, and lived short, dangerous, violent lives. Every once in a while, however, scientists uncover something that challenges that assumption. The latest evidence that the ancients were more knowledgeable and more capable than we might have thought comes from a cave in Borneo, where scientists unearthed a 31,000-year-old skeleton of a young adult. The remarkable feature of the skeleton was that the bones revealed a successful amputation of the individual’s ankle–and that the patient then lived for years afterward.

Successful amputations require significant medical knowledge. Practitioners must know about the structure of bones, blood vessels, and muscle tissue, where and how to cut to remove the ruined bone and flesh, the need to leave flaps of skin to cover the remaining exposed bone, and how to close the wound, stop the bleeding, and avoid infection. Before this recent discovery, the oldest known evidence of an amputation dated to 7,000 years ago in France. The Borneo discovery pushes that medical knowledge back to a point more than 20,000 years earlier, and indicates that, in at least some areas, ancient humans were much more medically sophisticated that we believed. It makes you wonder: if Borneo communities had knowledgeable doctors 31,000 years ago, what other medical knowledge did they possess, and for that matter how sophisticated were their scientific, religious, philosophical, and political beliefs?

There is another, equally compelling conclusion to be drawn from the Borneo discovery. The wound healed, and the patient, who scientists believed was a child when the injury occurred, lived for years afterward. Given the rugged local terrain, like that shown in the photo above, surviving with only one working leg would have been impossible without the help of caregivers–and in all likelihood the entire tribe or local community. That necessary reality confirms that our ancestors weren’t thoughtless savages, but were decent, generous people who took care of each other. That conclusion also makes me feel better about our species.

Earliest Memories

The other day I was thinking about what I believe is my earliest memory. It’s a difficult thing to do, because typically human memories don’t quite work that way; it’s not as if they are kept in a chronological filing cabinet. Instead, memories seem to be stored in the brain in a way that causes them to be triggered by external phenomena: a song, perhaps, or a situation, or a physical setting might provoke an avalanche of recollection. It’s therefore possible that I have an earliest memory that just hasn’t been triggered yet.

That said, the earliest recollection I can muster involved sitting in a big leather swivel chair, next to my brother Jim, at our Dad’s office when he worked as a bookkeeper for a construction company. I remember sitting on the chair as we swiveled around, looking at a safe with a big combination lock and a handle that was kept in Dad’s office to store the cash receipts. We liked rotating the chair like a merry-go-round and messing with the big lock on the safe. I’m not quite sure why I have this memory–perhaps it was because we had never been to Dad’s office before, and it was interesting to see it–but it is definitely an old one. I’m not sure exactly when Dad worked at the construction company, but the time period would have been in the pre-kindergarten years, perhaps when I was three or four.

A recent study suggests that many people can identify memories dating back to the age of two-and-a-half, and that people also tend to misdate their earliest memories and assign them to later points in their lives. It isn’t clear why two-and-a-half seems to be the cutoff point–perhaps the brain just isn’t ready to begin significant storage before then, or perhaps the things that are happening before that age aren’t specifically memorable–but the authors of the study suggest that if you want to try to remember your earliest memories, you just need to work at it, because summoning up early memories often has a kind of cascading effect. But be careful: studies also suggest that what many people think is their earliest memory is fictional, particularly if it goes back beyond the age of two or so. Those “memories” often aren’t true memories, but instead are descriptions of family photographs or ingrained family stories that have been implanted in the brain over the years.

I’m pretty sure my swivel chair memory is a true memory, and not a later implant, but of course there is no way to know for sure. The “earliest memory” issue does make you realize that your brain is kind of like your grandmother’s attic, with all kind of weird stuff stored up there, and you’re not quite sure why some memories got stashed and others didn’t.

Getting Direction From A Food Compass

We used to be told to pay attention to a food pyramid. Now Tufts University has developed a different mechanism for assessing what to eat, called a food compass. And, like any good compass, it’s definitely suggesting a change in direction when it comes to preconceived notions of healthy eating.

Tufts describes the food compass as “a novel nutrient profiling system developed by researchers at Tufts University” that evaluates foods across various domains and uses an algorithm to determine a score. The approach results in an assigned Food Compass Score (FCS) between 1 and 100 (with 100 being the most healthful) to nearly any food. You are encouraged to eat and drink items with scores over 70, consume items with scores between 31 and 69 in moderation, and minimize your intake of foods with scores under 30.

It’s probably not surprising that spinach scores a perfect 100 on the food compass, that raw fruits and nuts all receive high scores, and that snacks and sweet desserts are at the bottom of the scale, but some of the other results aren’t quite as expected. For example, the media has noted that a chocolate ice cream cone with nuts gets a higher food compass score (35) than a coconut and chocolate granola bar (15). The chocolate ice cream cone with nuts contains proteins and nutrients, whereas the granola bar is “mostly refined starch and sugar.” The chocolate/nuts ice cream cone even outscores frozen yogurt, which comes in at a measly 23. (The frozen yogurt is one point better than a thick crust pizza with extra meat, which ekes out a 22.) And according to the food compass, an egg omelet (51) isn’t as healthy as a bowl of plain Cheerios (95) or instant oatmeal (75).

One of the issues about food compasses, food pyramids, and other devices to help us achieve healthier diets is that it’s not easy to use them when you are out and about, making dietary choices. But any rating system that says a chocolate ice cream cone with nuts is healthier than a granola bar is bound to turn some heads and, potentially, cause people to pay attention and develop healthier eating habits.

Spinning The Shortest Day Ever

When you said–as everyone who is truthful about it must admit they did say–that it seemed like August got here faster than ever this summer. . . well, it turns out you were right. August literally arrived more quickly than ever before because the Earth is spinning faster than ever, producing shorter days. In fact, scientists have determined that June 29, 2022 was the shortest day ever, clocking in at 1.59 millisecond shorter than the average day.

Our planet apparently started to rotate more quickly in 2016, and the quicker spinning seems to be accelerating, with 2022 seeing a speedier spin that 2020 and 2021. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why the quicker cycles began, but think it might have something to do with the tides.

The shorter days may require that atomic clocks and other devices be recalibrated to keep precise time. Because all of those lost milliseconds will add up, scientists have floated the idea of a “negative leap second” to account for the reduction in the length of days, employing the same concept that causes us to add a leap day to the calendar every four years. Engineers hate the idea and raise the possibility that messing with the clocks could have a devastating impact on technology and cause massive outages. Their position may remind some of the dire “Y2K” forecasts of what might happen when we hit the year 2000 that didn’t materialize, but I’m with the engineers on this one: if attempting a “negative leap second” could cause mass failures, panic, and the end of the civilization as we know it, I’d rather live with the fact that our clocks are off by a few milliseconds.

None of this should affect the proud reaction of those who admittedly did say (as I did) that August got here earlier this year. Isn’t it nice to know that your finely honed internal chronometer is working more reliably than our atomic clocks?

Hugging Anxiety

Is the art of hugging gender-specific? And I say “art” intentionally, because some people are really good at hugging and go all-in for an entirely natural, smooth, enveloping hug, whether they are the hug-deliverer or the hug-recipient. Others among us, however, haven’t even risen to the paint-by-numbers stage in the art of hugging. When the logical time for a potential hug comes, we’re standing there, as stiff and awkward and bumbling as Richard Nixon in the famous photo with Sammy Davis, Jr. You might as well hug a telephone pole.

A recent study indicates that successful hugging may have gender-specific elements. The study focused on hugs between romantic partners and found that women who hug their partners before a stressful event, like an exam or an important presentation, experience a decrease in anxiety, reflected in a reduction in production of stress-related hormones. Men who got hugged, however, did not experience a similar reduction in those hormones.

I’m wondering if that’s because the guys in the study were experiencing a deep sense of dread about whether they were correctly participating in the hug, or totally botching it in a Nixonian way.

The researchers in this particular study conclude that more research is needed to fully assess the reactions to hugs, including analyzing the effect of hugs between platonic friends and whether a brief hug has the same stress-reducing impact as a prolonged hug. Either way, it looks like more hugging may lie ahead. The hugging-challenged among us should brace ourselves–which we would probably do anyway.

Routinizing Spaceflight, And The Cislunar Void

In case you’ve missed it, there’s been some interesting recent news on the space front, in several different areas. It indicates that real progress has been made in “routinizing” spaceflight–that is, getting to the point where spaceflights have become a normal, expected occurrence, rather than a once-ever-six-months national TV phenomenon–as we get ready to tackle the next step in the development of our extraterrestrial neighborhood.

For now, the routinizing news is all about SpaceX. Today, that company is set to complete its 32nd launch of 2022, which will break the record the company set in 2021, even though the year is barely more than half over. With its fleet of reusable and reliable Falcon 9 rockets and tested launch systems, SpaceX has carried crew members and cargo to the international space station, seeded a bunch of Starlink satellites into Earth orbit, performed missions for the Department of Defense, and made forays into space so commonplace that they don’t get much attention, except from the space nerds (like me) among us.

Here are some interesting statistics: in 2022, SpaceX has launched a vehicle, on average, every 6.4 days and has taken 300,000 kg of material and people into low Earth orbit, which means that SpaceX has done more than all other countries and companies in the world, combined. SpaceX plans to make about 50 launches this year and is basically leading the way to routinized spaceflight, all by itself. That means spaceflight will become even more routine–and, by definition, cheaper–as SpaceX’s competitors ramp up their launches and activities in the coming months, as they plan to do.

This is good news, and an important platform on which to build as space development moves to the logical next step, when we venture beyond low-Earth orbit into cislunar space, which is the area beyond geosynchronous orbit out to the surface of the Moon. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently issued a request for information about developing U.S. strategy for development of cislunar space, and some responses have urged that commercial entities should lead the way. That is, the governmental role shouldn’t be to do everything, as it did in the ’60s space program, but instead should be to clear the way for commercial companies like SpaceX to apply their creativity, engineering prowess, technological savvy, and venture capital to lead the development effort. With many companies focusing on cislunar space, and the government helping to coordinate their efforts, development and further routinizing of spaceflight is much more likely to happen quickly. That will set the stage for an early return to the lunar surface and the Moon bases that were forecast in 2001.

Those of us who are creatures of habit know the value of the routine. That is true for spaceflight as well, and will continue to be true when cislunar space is the focus. What SpaceX has done is impressive, but it also allows us to glimpse the possibilities.

Assessing The Natural Impact Of The Pandemic Shutdowns

When the COVID pandemic struck in earnest in March 2020 and lockdown orders began to be issued by governments around the world, the impact on human beings was immediate and obvious. Most people stopped traveling by air or by car, tourism abruptly dropped, and many travel destinations closed for months as people huddled in their homes. More than two years later, we’re still dealing with the economic fallout from the shutdowns and assessing the positive and negative impacts on homo sapiens.

But because the COVID shutdowns effectively stopped a lot of human movement, it also affected the natural world–and there, too, scientists are trying to sift through the data and determine the impact. Scientists and environmentalists have dubbed the COVID shutdown period the “anthropause”–“anthro” being the prefix for humans–and are in the process of evaluating information about what it meant for various ecosystems. Their preliminary conclusion, according to an interesting article in the New York Times, basically is: “it’s complicated.” The cessation of a significant chunk of human activity clearly had some positive effects, but it had some negative effects as well.

The positive effects are, perhaps, easier to understand. Because humans weren’t going to certain places, making noise, stirring things up, and interacting with the flora and fauna, the natural world had a brief chance to revert to a non-human equilibrium. For example, the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Hawaii, where the photo above was taken, is a popular snorkeling spot. It was closed to all visitors for nine months during the COVID shutdown, which resulted in significantly improved water clarity (without snorkelers kicking up lots of sediment) and increased fish density and diversity (without snorkelers causing a ruckus and causing fish to swim elsewhere). Similar positive effects were seen in other places.

But there were negative effects as well, because in many places humans either are affirmatively acting as protectors of habitats or species, or because human activity has the effect of discouraging predator species. The Times article cites an island off the coast of Sweden that is a popular bird-watching destination, where scientists have found that the reduction in human visitors emboldened eagles whose activities affected the hatching activities of still other birds, causing a 26 percent drop in the breeding activity of that species. In addition, many environmental conservation and monitoring programs were impacted, and in some areas illegal poaching spiked.

In short, because the totality of human interaction with the environment is immensely complex, trying to assess the full impact of the cessation of human interaction also is a difficult question. There are a lot of falling dominoes to evaluate and causal chains to consider, and the ultimate results of the analysis may not be known for years, if at all. What does seem clear is that areas where limitations on human activity had an obvious positive impact are likely to take steps to make sure that some form of limitations remain in place. The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, for example, has imposed new limitations on the number of snorkelers who are permitted and is totally closed two days a week.

It would be nice to think that we could learn something positive, and ultimately helpful to the environment, from the COVID shutdown period.

The Webb Space Telescope Delivers

This week NASA released the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, and it is pretty amazing stuff.

The Webb Telescope is a joint effort by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. From its position far out in space, without having to peer through the Earth’s atmosphere, the Webb Telescope can see infrared light that is not detectable by the human eye and can position its powerful mirror assembly to peer into the deepest recesses of the universe. The images from the first five targets of the Telescope show its versatility; they range from a look at objects that are basically in our stellar neighborhood, only a few thousand light years distant, to a look at SMACS 0723, a cluster of galaxies that are 4.6 billion light years away.

And we can give NASA and its partners credit for a bit of whimsy in their choices, too. They decided one of the targets should be a cluster of galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet–familiar to anyone who has watched It’s A Wonderful Life as the home territory of the angel Clarence–and the image at the bottom of this post shows how the galaxies interact with each other and form new stars in a kind of exquisite gravitational dance.

My favorite images from the first five targets are of the amoeba-like Southern Ring planetary nebula, shown above. The nebula, which is a mere 2,500 light years from Earth, was formed by shells of gas and dust that were ejected by the two dying stars in the center of the array, shown clearly in the photo on the right. Carl Sagan would call the wispy material radiating out into the void “star stuff,” and it’s breathtaking to see.

The Webb Space Telescope has just begun its operations, and its five targets are only a tiny, infinitesimal part of the universe that the telescope will be exploring. Simply put, there’s lots to look at. Prepare to be amazed.

Redefining Death

Yahoo has published an interesting article about an ongoing debate that most of us are blissfully unaware of: how do you define, as a legal matter, who is dead? The debate is heated, and is occurring in the context of discussions about rewriting the Uniform Determination of Death Act (“UDDA”). UDDA, which has been around since 1981, is one of many uniform laws that were drafted by the Uniform Law Commission and submitted to the 50 states in an effort to achieve standardized approaches to common issues, like what constitutes a contract for the sale of goods. In most instances, the work of the Uniform Law Commission addresses uncontroversial topics where reaching consensus is not difficult.

Redefining death has turned out to be an exception.

Determining who is legally dead is one of those areas where advances in medicine have affected legal issues. For many centuries, doctors determined death by listening for a heartbeat or taking a pulse and pushing a mirror under the patient’s nose to see whether breathing was occurring. Medical technology developed over recent decades has allowed machines to substitute for the heart and lungs, however, and other inventions have allowed us to examine human brain activity, which means the focus has shifted to the brain. If there is no brain activity, but a human being continues to breathe and other bodily functions continue with the help of machines, is that person alive or dead? How do we know if the cessation of brain activity is permanent? Should brain activity be controlling, or should the activities of other anatomical parts that affect body activity, like glands and the hippocampus, be considered? And another relatively recent medical advance–organ transplants–also is playing a role in the redefinition process. Essential organs can only be removed from a patient who is dead, so having a clear understanding of what that means is crucial to the organ transplant system.

The original UDDA was adopted by some states, but not others, and the rules defining death in different countries are even more muddled. The Uniform Law Commission is working to rewrite UDDA, and thereby redefine what legally constitutes death, against the backdrop of the medical issues and developments as well as some high-profile cases that have raised issues about when the end of life occurs. It’s a topic that touches upon medicine, law, philosophy, ethics, and religion–and, as with everything else in our modern era, politics. When UDDA was first proposed and adopted by states in the 1980s, it was not viewed as a controversial topic. Does anyone seriously believe that a rewrite of the statute would be viewed as apolitical in 2023, when it is expected to be rolled out to each of the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. for consideration?

You’d like to think that we can reach agreement on basic principles, like when someone is legally dead. The rewrite of UDDA will test that proposition.

Technology And Hope

We’ve heard a lot over the past few years about the downsides of technology, about how it has allowed people to track us and accumulate data about us and hack into our computer systems to steal personal information and engage in credit card fraud or identity theft. It’s important to remember, though, that new and advanced technology is just a tool, and in the right hands it can perform almost miraculous positive things, too.

Recently researchers announced one example of such a positive use of technology that allowed a patient with late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)–also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease–to communicate with the outside world. In the late stages of the disease, ALS patients become completely paralyzed and are unable to move, speak. or communicate with their families and doctors. It is hard to imagine the sense of loneliness and hopelessness that such patients must experience as the paralysis progresses, communication becomes impossible, and they are locked in to their own consciousness.

A team in Germany used technology to establish communication with one such patient, using neural implants that read signals from the patient’s brain and allow him to form words and sentences. The process employed neural feedback that allowed the patient to align brain signals to high tones and low tones. Once the patient learned how to control the tones and researchers adjusted the tones to reflect the most responsive neurons, the patient could use the system to say yes or no. When the yes/no options were applied to groups of letters and then individual letters, the patient was able to form complete sentences–through a laborious process that moved at a rate of about one character per minute, to be sure, but communication with the outside world nevertheless.

The patient has since produced dozens of sentences–including thoughts like “I love my cool son.” The system isn’t foolproof; on some days the patient was unable to produce an intelligible sentence, and researchers aren’t sure whether it was because the patient wasn’t focused, or the implants lost contact with the neurons with which they were attuned, or for some other reason. And, of course, the system is expensive, too, and will have to be adapted to allow for communication with other paralyzed patients. But those facts don’t detract from the remarkable accomplishment that technology has allowed: permitting a completely paralyzed person to communicate again.

I’m certain that patient is deeply grateful that the technology permitted him to let his son, and others, know that he is still inside and still capable of the feelings that define us all as human beings. I’ll think of that the next time I’m reminded of the downsides of technology.