Scratching That Itch

There’s been a lot written about what to do to protect yourself from the coronavirus.  Some of it’s pretty easy.  Wash your hands regularly?  Check.  Avoid Wuhan province in China and locations within Iran?  Check, and check.

But some of the proffered prohibitions are a lot harder to comply with — like, the instruction that you’re supposed to avoid touching your face.  As one article somewhat alarmingly puts it, “[a]ll it takes is just one virus to hitch a ride on a contaminated finger and slip into the body through a nostril or a wet part of the face” — and then bad things could happen.  So, any contact between fingers and face is to be strictly avoided.  In fact, one reason some health officials encourage people not to buy face masks is that putting on and taking off and adjusting the mask causes wearers to touch their faces, and you don’t want to do that.

2fmethode2ftimes2fprodmigration2fweb2fbin2f1de94d19-91ed-3b68-804d-aadbfccc5363Not touching your face is harder than it sounds, because we’ve been unconsciously touching our faces for our entire lives — since earliest infancy, and probably before that in the womb, too.  We rub the sleep out of our eyes, and we scratch our noses when they get itchy.  We groom our our eyebrows, fiddle with our eyelashes, rub the bridge of our noses, and stroke our chins because we think it makes us look more intelligent.  We rest our cheeks against fists and palms.  These little gestures have been a basic part of our daily lives, and now we’re supposed to stop?

Of course, the issue of touching your face has been studied, like everything else humans do.  According to the article linked above, one study of medical students showed that, on average, they touched their faces 23 times an hour — and I’m surprised that, for people sitting idle in a classroom, that number isn’t a lot higher.   And researchers argue that there are lots of reasons for our reflexive face-touching.  Some say that face-touching is related to negative feelings, when we’re feeling uneasy or unsettled.  Others say face touching increases when people are distracted and need to refocus, and face touching is a kind of mental cue to help in the focusing process.

So, how do you stop touching your face?  The first step is to actually be aware when you are doing it.  If we can stop acting reflexively, and start doing things only purposefully and intentionally, maybe we can avoid those unconscious gestures and do something else to occupy our hands when the urge to scratch, rub, or fiddle becomes irresistible.  And washing our hands before and after is important, too.

But boy!  It’s going to be hard not to scratch that itch.

Going Medieval

The New York Times had an interesting piece on Friday about how the coronavirus is spurring a “new” approach to dealing with disease — “new” in the sense that it is different from how the modern world has handled disease over the past few decades, but really not new at all in that it harkens back to the methods used in medieval times.  The “new” approach is called the quarantine.

quarantineAs the Times article points out, the quarantine is a disease control method that’s as old as time.  During the medieval period, when the spread of disease wasn’t understood from a scientific standpoint, authorities still had techniques they used during a health crisis:  they fought the spread of the Black Plague by closing borders, quarantining sick people on ships and in pest houses, and heading out of the cities into the countryside to get away from the sick zones.  That method of dealing with the spread of disease lasted for centuries.

After advances in science and medicine, the invention of the microscope, and the development of ways of discovering, and treating, diseases and viruses, the approach to public health changed.  The Times article reports that the last time the U.S. government, for example, imposed a national restriction on entry into the country was in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison ordered that ships from Hamburg be kept offshore for 20 days because Hamburg had lied about a cholera epidemic.  Since then, the U.S. has adopted the “modern” approach, which involves accepting the spread of the disease and trying to deal with it through antibiotics, vaccines, and other forms of treatment.

With the coronavirus, the Trump Administration has combined the “modern” approach with the “medieval” approach.  The Administration imposed a very early ban on entry into the country by non-citizens from China and discouraging travel to China, and over the weekend President Trump announced additional restrictions on travel to areas where new outbreaks have occurred:  Iran, and specific areas of South Korea and Italy.  And, as the Times article points out, these restrictions seem to have worked.  Although there are coronavirus cases reported in the U.S., the incidence rate is far below what some other countries have experienced, and the travel restrictions gave the country time to prepare for the virus.

When it comes to dealing with communicable disease. harsh measures are sometimes necessary, and time is frequently of the essence.  If travel bans and quarantines help public health officials, I’m all in favor of going a bit “medieval” in response to the coronavirus.

Into The Public Domain

Most Americans have been to the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  — whether it was on a family vacation, or on their 8th grade field trip to the nation’s capital, or because they lived or worked in the D.C. area as Kish and I did back in the ’80s.  The museums are a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and are filled with interesting things and insights.

But you can only enjoy them if you are on the National Mall.  Until now, that is.

dezp7clwsaed2ydThe Smithsonian is releasing 2.8 million images from its collection in all of its museums, libraries, and archives into the public domain.   The massive release includes both two-dimensional and three-dimensional high resolution images that have been downloaded onto an open-access online platform, which you can find here.  The on-line platform invites the public to “download, share, and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images—right now, without asking.”  The first download is just the beginning, as the Smithsonian continues an effort to digitize its collection of more than 155 million items and artifacts.

The Smithsonian’s release is part of a growing effort by museums to move their collections into the public domain, where they can be perused and enjoyed by anyone with access to a computer.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and more than 200 other museums across the world are part of the effort, although the Smithsonian release is by far the most extensive.  The Smithsonian magazine article linked above explains that the materials in the Smithsonian on-line platform are now covered by a Creative Commons Zero license, which frees the items “from all restrictions, copyright or otherwise, enabling anyone with a decent Internet connection to build on them as raw materials—and ultimately participate in their evolution.”  And the on-line platform is easy to use, with a simple search function.  I like dinosaurs, so I did a search for an allosaurus, and downloaded the image above — which is now in the public domain.

I’m a museum lover, and can happily spend hours browsing through exhibitions, so I hope there is always a place for the quiet, thoughtful, in-person museum experience.  But I also am a proponent of putting things into the public domain and increasing access, and applaud the Smithsonian and the other museums participating in the effort for taking a leadership role in making their collections accessible to everyone.

In Search Of Eyeball Planets

Let’s say we’ve moved some time into the future, when interstellar space travel has become commonplace.  You’re on board a Virgin Galactic or SpaceX or Blue Horizons or Heinlein Enterprises flight down to Nimbus, in a solar system in the Orion constellation, when you look down at your destination and . . . it’s a planet that looks like a giant, unblinking eyeball against the dark, star-filled sky.

That would make your cool little space voyage even cooler, wouldn’t it?

planetscouldlooklikeeyeballs_600Scientists believe that there may be “eyeball planets” out there, just waiting to be visited.  They would look like eyeballs because they would be tidally locked with the star they are circling, so one side of the planet always faces the star — just like one side of the Moon always faces the Earth, so that we Earth dwellers never get to see the Dark Side of the Moon.  In such circumstances, the “light side” of the planet facing the star and absorbing the brunt of the sun’s radiation, heat, light, and solar wind, is bound to be a lot different than the “dark side” — hotter than the dark side, for sure, and probably different in other ways, too.

Scientists theorize that there could be at least two kinds of eyeball planets out there, and probably more.  Hot eyeballs would be planets located close to their sun, where the sun side is totally dry because the heat has caused all of the moisture on that side to evaporate, and the dark side is one enormous ice cap — with a temperate ring caused by melting ice, in perpetual, unchanging twilight, separating the two sides.  Icy eyeballs would be farther away from the star, where the dark side would be one huge glacier but the sun side would still have liquid water — perhaps with a few islands and continents thrown in for good measure, just to give the eye an even creepier appearance.

The Elephant In The Room

As coronavirus continues to spread, with the total number of reported cases now exceeding 77,000 people worldwide, stock markets plummeting because of the impact of the virus on the global economy, and the World Health Organization saying that the world should be prepared for a pandemic, scientists are trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the apparent pathways for the disease is through the fecal matter of infected people.  The Chinese CDC “recommends strengthening sanitation and hygiene measures to prevent fecal-oral transmission” in areas where the coronavirus is present, with the hygiene measures to include “drinking boiled water, avoiding eating raw food, implementing separate meal systems, frequent hand-washing, disinfecting toilets, and preventing water and food contamination from patients’ stool.”  The concern is that infected persons’ “stool samples may contaminate hands, food, water” and cause infection when the microbes enter the mouth or eyes, or are inhaled.

gettyimages-693551624What does the apparent transmission route through fecal matter tell us about who is at risk in the event of a serious outbreak in the United States — something that hasn’t happened yet?  It seems that one logical course should be to target specific populations where sanitation and disposal of human waste aren’t well controlled.  If I were a public health official in America, I’d therefore be considering what can be done to anticipate and prevent a nightmare scenario in which coronavirus reaches one of the colossal homeless encampments found in some U.S. cities, like Los Angeles.  Public health officials have already identified poor health conditions and contact with fecal matter in “homeless zone” as the source for transmission of diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis in Los Angeles.  What would happen if a rapidly spreading disease like coronavirus were to reach one of the densely populated, squalid encampments?

America hasn’t shown much of an appetite for tackling the issue of homelessness, which has become the unspoken of elephant in the room in many American cities.  When it comes to public health and disease prevention, however, we’re all in this together, and potential avenues for rapid disease transmission can’t simply be ignored away.

I’m hoping that the potentially disastrous implications of coronavirus reaching homeless populations will cause local, state, and federal officials to finally work out a solution that helps the homeless find places that are safe, secure, and healthy, with adequate sanitation facilities and running water.  If we’re going to get a grip on the spread of coronavirus, or the next disease coming down the pike, it’s time to be proactive and to act to protect the vulnerable and the rest of us as well.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.

The Oldest Oral Tradition

No one knows when human speech began, but estimates are that human speech has existed for tens of thousands of years, and perhaps since as long as 150,000 years ago. Writing — a system which allowed humans to store and organize information without the need for human speech — didn’t exist until cunieform was created using clay tablets in what is now Iraq 3,200 years ago, followed quickly, and independently, by the development of writing in China and Mesoamerica.

So, how did our early human ancestors bridge that gap and preserve information for those tens of thousands of years? Obviously, they did so through oral communication and memorization. Through talks around campfires and in hunter-gatherer villages, the early humans learned of the useful plants and herbs in their areas and how they could be used to treat illness or injury, were taught about successful techniques for hunting prey, and undoubtedly spoke of legends and heroes and creation stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the blind poet Homer, were part of the ancient Greek oral tradition and were told for generations before being reduced to writing. The ancient tale of Gilgamesh and countless creation tales also date back to the era before the written word. The evidence is that the oral tradition can be a remarkably durable way of preserving and conveying information.

Scientists believe they may have discovered the oldest existing piece of oral tradition on Earth — one that dates back 37,000 years and countless generations. It is the tale of Budj Bim told by the Gunditjmara people in eastern Australia, one of whom is shown above. Like other Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the Gunditjmara have a rich oral tradition in which all kinds of ecological information is conveyed through tellings and re-tellings. In the story in question, an ancient creator-being is transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim. Scientists have now determined that two volcanoes erupted in the area in which the Gunditjmara lived 37,000 years ago, and suspect that the tale of Budj Bim is actually an account of the explosions. And if their hypothesis is true, the correlation of the legend and the volcanic eruptions would be confirming evidence that humans lived on Australia 37,000 years ago.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down with a member of the Gunditjmara and hear her tell the tale of Budj Bim, as she heard it from her mother who heard it from her mother, understanding that it was told in the same way, in an unbroken line of generations, going back 37,000 years? It would be almost like sitting around the campfire with our early human ancestors, hearing the tale directly in their voice. I would like to hear that tale.