NASA Turns 60

Today NASA celebrates its 60th birthday.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 29, 1958.

63a69251ab87b6532a23a84672c0bb66NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and President Eisenhower viewed the creation of the agency as an historic step, “further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age” and allowing it to make “an effective national effort in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.”  You can read the full text of President Eisenhower’s signing statement here.

It is not unusual for federal legislation to be hailed as historic when it is signed, but in the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that prediction was entirely accurate.  I think it is safe to say that NASA has met, and greatly exceeded, the goal of allowing the United States to make “an effective national effort in the field of aeronautics and space exploration.”  The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the space shuttle and international space station, and the many unmanned probes and devices that have allowed us to better understand our solar system all bear the indelible imprint of NASA.  NASA has taken human beings to the Moon and brought them safely back home and has given us up-close looks at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.  NASA’s efforts have also helped to push advancements in science, technology, and other areas that have now become part of our lives and culture.  By any measure, this still-sprightly 60-year-old has been a spectacular success.

Some people reflexively complain about the creation of any federal agency, but NASA is an example of how mobilizing an effort at the national level and entrusting it to knowledgeable people can accomplish great things.  With private space exploration and travel looming on the immediate horizon, and Congress currently considering how to regulate those private efforts going forward, it will be interesting to see what the next 60 years bring for NASA — the little agency that could.

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Going To The Moon

Forty-nine years ago, on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.  Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto the lunar surface, spoke his famous words — “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” — and history was made.

6dd375de95e2dbaea454b6203379dd20I was watching on that day, along with probably everyone else on the planet who had access to a TV set.  I remember sitting with UJ and watching grainy black and white footage as the lunar module landed and then, later, Armstrong stepped into history.  I was 12 years old.  Even now, I still feel a little thrill just thinking about that day and that moment, when it seemed like anything was possible and it would be the start of a golden age of space exploration that would take human beings to Moon bases, Martian colonies, and on to the stars.  Of course, that didn’t happen . . . but I still remember that awed and awesome feeling.

Popular Mechanics has a great piece that steps through the various phases of the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff to the descent to the Moon to the return to Earth, based on the recollections of some of the participants.  It’s well worth reading.  If, like me, you watched it live in amazed wonder, you can relive that experience.  If you weren’t around then, it’s worth reading just to get a sense of what it was like for the United States of America to invent spacecraft, land on the Moon, and return to Earth in an era when the most sophisticated computer used on the mission would now be considered a Stone Age relic.  It was an extraordinary achievement.

I hope our politicians celebrate this 49th anniversary, and finally decide that it’s high time that we return to the Moon — and venture farther still.  It’s long overdue.

“Traveler’s Constipation”

The New York Times carries one of those “ask a doctor” columns called “Ask Well.”  The other day it responded to the question:  “Is there such a thing as traveler’s constipation?”

Parenthetically, this reminded me of when I was in college and the Ohio State Lantern carried a similar, extremely popular feature, in which one of the doctors at the University responded to student health questions.  Since the questioners were college students, the tone of the inquiries wasn’t exactly elevated.  I remember that one of the questions fielded by the doctor came from an oddly observant student who wondered why some of his toilet deposits sank to the bottom of the bowl while others floated.  No doubt the doctors who agree to write such columns wonder, from time to time, whether this is really why they went through the hell involved in getting an M.D.

e2e8df6b6cfdc669ce638b702cfcacc6Anyway, back to the pressing issue of “traveler’s constipation” — the Times doc states that there is such a thing, and it afflicts a percentage of travelers.  In fact, several medical studies of the phenomenon have been conducted.  One of the studies, of 70 Europeans who had traveled to the U.S., was quite robust in its data acquisition.  The Times described it as follows: “In addition to the usual questionnaires, all subjects maintained diaries on their bowel habits, had stool samples evaluated for consistency according to a standardized methodology, and had their colonic transit time measured after ingesting radioactive tracers. Colonic transit time is the time required for stool to move through the large intestine.”  (You’d think that ingesting radioactive tracers that the subjects would know were moving through their guts and then maintaining diaries on bowel movements and having stool samples analyzed might interfere with normal functioning and produce false results, but apparently not.)  And there are actually products out in the market that are supposed to help deal with “traveler’s constipation.”

But although the studies reported in the Times detected some evidence of “traveler’s constipation,” which apparently is primarily noticed during the first days of travel and often correlates with jet lag, whether the condition is caused by travel isn’t exactly clear.  The studies note that travel also often involves changes in diet and exercise — sitting at an airport gate eating something purchased along the concourse isn’t exactly designed to promote “regularity” — and the Times doc also notes that a significant portion of people, from 12 to 19 percent, are generally constipated whether they are traveling are not.  That may explain why it’s not unusual to meet grumpy people in the world.

It’s also not clear whether the studies also looked at another potential cause for “traveler’s constipation” — namely, a concerted effort on the part of mind and body to avoid having to use a dubious public airport bathroom — that might contribute to the condition.  The good news, though, is that the Times doc concludes that “traveler’s constipation” is not a serious health problem.  In short, it too shall pass.

Handedness

This morning we went to the Deer Isle weekly farmers’ market. In addition to stalls offering local produce, eggs, dairy products, and meats, there also are stalls offering crafts and handmade goods — like the one that sold these spoons.

As I walked by, I was struck by this pile of left-handed spoons. There was a similar pile of right-handed spoons, as well as spoons that were agnostic on the preferred hand issue. I thought it was a joke — like the old prank about telling a gullible kid that he needed to go find a left-handed screwdriver– but the earnest young woman selling the spoons made clear it was no joking matter. Getting the right spoon to match your “handedness” is extremely important, she said.

It seemed strange to me — but then the whole concept of “handedness” seems pretty strange, too. Human beings are studies in bilateral symmetry; we have two arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, ears, and nostrils. We don’t typically think of people as having a dominant leg, or ear, or nostril — so why do so many people have a dominant hand? About 90 percent of humans are right-handed, 9 percent are left-handed, and only the remaining 1 percent are truly ambidextrous.

That means, of course, that the market for left-handed spoons is a lot smaller than the market for right-handed spoons. But why should we have a dominant hand at all?

What’s In It?

Every morning, I get up bright and early, stumble downstairs, and brew myself a fresh pot of coffee.  I then liberally coat the bottom of a coffee cup with powdery Coffeemate, so when I pour the coffee it automatically mixes with the Coffeemate and produces a hot, steaming concoction of caramel-colored goodness.  It tastes pretty good, too.

img_6278Coffee with Coffeemate in the morning is a matter of standard routine.  But today I thought — what’s in this powdery stuff, exactly?

The answer is written on the side of the container.  There’s corn syrup solids, hydrogenated vegetable oil (which, according to the label, might include “coconut and/or palm kernel and/or soybean,” just to keep you guessing), sodium caseinate (which the label helpfully discloses is a “milk derivative”), dipotassium phosphate (but fortunately, the label points out, “less than 2%” of that stuff), mono- and diglycerides, sodium aluminosilicate, artificial flavor, and “annatto color.”

Hmmmm . . . “sodium aluminosilicate”?  I suppose I at least should be happy that there is a “milk derivative,” and “corn syrup” and “vegetable oil” in there among the chemical compounds that Walter White probably lectured on in his high school chemistry class.

Is there value in these kinds of product labels?  I think so, especially if you’ve got allergies to certain foodstuffs and want to find out whether a particular product might provoke a reaction.  But labels that list a bunch of chemical compounds — a group which includes virtually every label these days — aren’t especially illuminating.  I’m not going to research “dipotassium phosphate.”  Instead, people tend to make judgments based on products they know.  Mom had Coffeemate, in both its liquid and powdery forms, around the house in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and I doubt that the formula has changed much over the years, so it seems like a safe option to me.

And that dipotassium phosphate and sodium aluminosilicate really hits the spot!

The Suicide Cascade

The recent deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have focused attention on a growing health problem in the United States:  suicide.  If it seems like suicide has become more commonplace in recent years, that’s because that is exactly what has happened.

anthony-bourdain-dead-6Coincidentally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week that sketched out some statistics on suicide in America — which are deeply disturbing.  The CDC report states that suicide has been steadily increasing for more than a decade and is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  The CDC looked at data from individual states from 1999 to 2016 and found that suicide rates have increased in virtually every state.  In half of the states, the rate has increased by a mind-boggling 30 percent.

The CDC report found that, in 2016, almost 45,000 Americans died by suicide, with especially sharp increases in suicide rates in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont, New Hampshire and South Carolina.  The statistics also show that women are beginning to close the historical suicide “gender gap,” in which men have been far more likely to take their own lives; suicide rates among American women also have surged.

What causes a person to commit suicide?  Why would someone as interesting and witty and evidently successful as Anthony Bourdain, for example, decide to take their own life?  The CDC report found that more than half of the people who committed suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition.  Another recent study, on suicide trends in 27 states, also determined that suicide is more than a mental health issue, with many of the people acting as a result of relationship problems or loss of a loved one, substance misuse, physical health problems, or other personal or financial strains.

And suicide also seems to have a nefarious cascade effect, in which each suicide makes the next one more likely.  It’s apparently due to a variation of the “broken windows” effect, in which learning of someone’s suicide gives struggling people who otherwise might not think of it the idea that suicide is a viable option.  The effect has produced well-known instances of “suicide clusters” in towns or schools, in America and elsewhere — which may mean that we should hold our breath and hope that highly publicized suicides, like those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, don’t trigger an even greater epidemic of self-inflicted harm.

We all need to keep our eyes open, pay attention to our friends and colleagues who are struggling, and try to help them understand that their lives are worth living, even in times of great difficulty.

Linking Glasses And Brainpower

Scientists have taken a careful look at one of the most important issues of our time and have found that there is, in fact, a link between innate brainpower and wearing glasses.  The findings warm the hearts the bespectacled among us — including, no doubt, many of the very scientists who conducted the study in the first place.

copilot-style-201506-1434641377474_lebron-james-01In research conducted by the University of Edinburgh, more than 40,000 people took a variety of tests that provided a general cognitive ability score, and also allowed their genetic data to be examined.  Researchers then probed the genetic data — including looking at more than 100 genomic regions that are associated with enhanced cognition — and found a correlation between intelligence and poor eyesight, with the smarter participants being, on average, 30 percent more likely to need reading glasses than those who scored poorly on the cognition tests.

And because the study involved actual cognition test data, the results shouldn’t be influenced by the “glasses effect” — namely, the general societal perception that those who wear glasses must be smarter because glasses are thought to make you look smarter.  Indeed, the lead researcher said the study “has identified many genetic differences that contribute to the heritability of thinking skills.”  So in addition to passing along the dreaded nearsighted genes, we glasses-wearers may also be passing along better thinking capabilities, too.

It all makes me want to square my shoulders, adjust my glasses, and — for today at least — proudly bear the name “four eyes.”