Base 10 Birthday

Later this week I’ll celebrate another birthday.  It will be one of those “decade” birthdays, where the first digit in your age moves up a notch and the last digit in your age cycles to zero again.

Let’s face it:  decade birthdays are somewhat annoying.  Just because our culture long ago settled on a “base 10” number system — presumably because the ancient Egyptians realized that we’ve got ten fingers on our hands, and chose to build mathematics around the concept of ten as the path of least resistance — doesn’t mean there should be any special significance to celebrating a birthday when your new age divided by ten produces a whole number rather than a fraction.  It’s just another year added to the ledger, and the turn of the calendar page doesn’t mean you should feel or act any different.

And yet, everybody treats the “decade” birthdays as if they are some hugely significant milestones.  Sure, 13 and 18 and 21 have their own special elements, but the decade birthdays can actually define you as a person.  Suddenly you’re “in your twenties” or “in your thirties,” and people expect you to behave in a certain way.  And as those decades creep upward, the age-related expectations tend to become even more fixed.

So I’ve got another decade birthday coming up.  So what?  The decimal system doesn’t define me.  In fact, I’m going to pretend that we’ve got a base 8 culture and ignore it.

The Warm Seas of Enceladus

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is alien life out there, in our solar system and beyond.  To the extent that people still cling to the geocentric notion that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, it’s time to think again.

enceladusThe latest indicator of that reality came yesterday, when NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft had found promising signs that alien life may exist on Enceladus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn.  Cassini flew through a plume that was spraying out of the icy shell covering Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen.  That’s a big deal because molecular hydrogen is created by interaction between warm water and rock, and along with carbon dioxide is the kind of food that early, microbial life forms can thrive on.  Scientists believe that life on Earth may have started in the same kind of environment surrounding the deep geothermal vents in our oceans — and if life started here, why shouldn’t it also occur in the same environment elsewhere?

Does that mean that there is, in fact, some form of life already existing on Enceladus?  Not necessarily, because the large amount of molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide detected by the Cassini spacecraft suggests that there isn’t much, if any, bacteria or microbial life on Enceladus actually consuming the food — a fact that doesn’t surprise scientists, because they think Enceladus is relatively young and it takes a long time for life to emerge.

But equally intriguing is that NASA also announced that the Hubble telescope found evidence of similar plumes on Europa, a much older moon orbiting Jupiter.  Because Europa has apparently been around for billions of years longer than Enceladus, the combination of molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and time might have allowed life to gain a foothold there.  It’s something we’re going to have to explore.

Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.

Rethinking Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease has been a known condition since it was discovered, in 1906, by a German doctor, and it has been the focus of lots of attention and research for decades.  It ranks as one of the top causes of death in the United States and is the third leading cause of death among people 60 and older, just behind heart disease and cancer.

So, after more than a hundred years, why haven’t we figured out how to treat this dread and deadly disease that robs people of their minds and personalities and leaves them empty shelves of their former selves?  Why, for example, have doctors and drug companies been able to develop effective treatments for HIV and AIDS, but not Alzheimer’s?

alzheimer_brainIt’s not that the scientific and medical community isn’t trying — but identifying the real cause of Alzheimer’s, and then devising a meaningful treatment, is proving to be an incredibly elusive challenge.  A brain with Alzheimer’s is like a car crash with no witnesses, where the accident reconstruction expert tries to find clues from the physical evidence.  Do those skid marks indicate that the driver was going too fast, or do they suggest that the driver was distracted, or was the driver paying attention when something like a deer unexpectedly came onto the road?  In the case of Alzheimer’s the brain is mangled and distorted and physically changed, both chemically and structurally.  Are those changes what caused the disease, or are they mere byproducts of the active agent that does the real harm?

For more than a quarter century, Alzheimer’s researchers and drug companies have been focusing on the “amyloid hypothesis,” which posits that an increase in amyloid deposits causes the disease, and have worked to develop drugs to target amyloid.  The hypothesis was devised because Alzheimer’s patients have an unusual buildup of amyloid in their brains, amyloid buildups have been found to be harmful in other bodily organs, and people with a genetic history of Alzheimer’s in their families also have been found to have mutations in the genes responsible for amyloid production.  With this kind of evidence, it’s not surprising that amyloid production has been the focus of treatment efforts.

Unfortunately, though, the trials of drugs that address amyloid production haven’t been successful — and after repeated failures, some scientists are wondering whether the amyloid hypothesis should be scrapped, and the disease should be examined afresh.  The amyloid hypothesis remains the prevailing view, but a minority of researchers think that the focus on amyloid buildup is like trying to close the barn door after the livestock have already escaped.  And they wonder whether the amyloid hypothesis has become entrenched with so many people, who invested so much time and money in developing amyloid-based treatments, that work on alternative approaches is being undercut.

It’s a classic test for the scientific method.  Over the years, there are countless examples of instances where prevailing views on medical, or physical, problems were overturned in favor of new approaches that turned out to accurately identify cause and effect.  The scientific method is supposed to objectively find the right answers.  For Alzheimer’s disease, maybe it is just a matter of tweaking how to develop the right treatment for the amyloid build-up — or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Those of us who have dealt with Alzheimer’s in our families hope the scientific and medical community put aside preconceived notions, dispassionately assess the evidence, and explore every avenue for developing a successful treatment.  This disease is just too devastating to go unaddressed.

Changing Over Time

Here’s some welcome, but not especially surprising, news:  scientists have concluded that our personalities change over time.

seniors_teensThe University of Edinburgh did an interesting study that confirms what should be obvious — people in their teenage years are a lot different from those same people as geriatrics.  The study looked at data compiled about the personality and character traits of people who were evaluated in 1947, at age 14, as part of the Scottish Mental Survey, and then tried to track down those same people down years later, when they hit age 77, to evaluate them again.  The study looked a personal qualities like self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to excel, and found very little correlation between the 14-year-olds and the 77-year-olds on the conscientiousness and stability of moods qualities, and no correlation on the others.

Any study of personality and character traits is not going to be as precise as, say, measuring the flow or neutrinos, because of observer bias.  The University of Edinburgh results, for example, rely on teacher assessments of the 14-year-olds — it’s not hard to imagine that your gym teacher might have a different take on self-confidence than your English teacher, for example —  and the 77-year-olds rated themselves and identified a close friend or family member to complete the survey.  I imagine, however, that by age 77 most people are going to drop the posturing and evaluate themselves pretty honestly.

So life, and time, change you.  No surprise there!  It would be weird indeed if a lifetime of experiences, good and bad, didn’t actually alter the way you reacted to other people and the world at large.  I carry around memories from my 14-year-old self, but other than that I don’t really feel a great connection to that awkward, tubby, dreamy, self-absorbed person on the verge of high school — which is kind of a relief, really.  I imagine that if most of us met our 14-year-old selves, we’d find it fascinating, but then conclude that we really weren’t all that likable back then, and give our parents, siblings, and friends a lot more credit for putting up with us.

The key, of course, is to change for the better.  It’s a worthy goal.

The Original Wonder Drug

A few years ago, our family doctor, who is a big believer in preventative medicine, encouraged me to start taking one low dose aspirin tablet ever day.  He said that you can’t argue with the statistics, which show all kinds of health benefits for people over the age of 50, including reduced risk of heart attack, from popping one of the tiny 81 milligram pills when you get up in the morning.  Since then, it’s become part of my daily routine.

bfd1b581-55ea-43ed-99f3-2410b30c9108_1-b4f9e3c1a45452b53c94cf7b9a8027a3But, because I’m curious, I found myself wondering . . . what’s in aspirin, anyway?

The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which is based on a substance generated in plants of the Spiraea genus.  For almost as long as humans have been around, since the days of ancient Egypt, they’ve been chewing the barks and leaves of certain trees or eating certain foods to obtain the pain reduction effects of the acid, without knowing that it was the acid that was doing the heavy lifting.  In the 1800s, doctors and scientists realized that chewing tree bark might not be the best way to deliver the therapeutic effects and began to focus on what was actually causing people to feel better.  They discovered that salicylic acid was the key ingredient, and then developed the acid synthetically.  The acetylsalicylic acid was reduced to powder form and mixed with other substances — stomach-friendly buffers like corn starch — for delivery to patients.  Bayer aspirin is called that because it was developed by a chemist in Bayer, Germany, and was first sold in pill form in 1915.

I remember taking St. Joseph’s aspirin for children, in those tasty, chewable, orange-flavored tablets, when I was a kid, and then as a teenager I graduated to the Bayer bottle, taking one of those dusty, bitter white pills if I had a bad headache.  Now those little 81 milligram pills, helpfully coated to go down easy, are working every day in my blood stream, trying keep the platelets flowing rather than clumping.

Those ancient Egyptians obviously knew what they were doing, but I’m glad that I can get the benefits by taking a pill rather than munching on some tree bark.

The End Of “Drilling And Filling”

Here’s another example of the miracles of modern medicine:  scientists have discovered a drug that appears to encourage damaged teeth to regenerate — a development that could bring an end to the practice of drilling out cavities and filling them.

normal-tooth_1The drug is called Tideglusib.  It not only is self-evidently unpronounceable, it also has the effect of stimulating and activating stem cells within the pulpy center of teeth, promoting the generation of the hard material that makes up most of our teeth, called the dentin — as anyone who has carefully read the tooth diagrams and tooth charts at the dentist’s office will recall.  Scientists tested the drug on mice, and found that applying the drug to cavities in the teeth of mice, using a biodegradable sponge, caused the tooth being treated to regenerate enough dentin to close the cavity.  (Wait a second:  mice get cavities, too?  They must not be very attentive to brushing and flossing.)

The next step will be to test the drug on humans, but the signs are encouraging that we may be on the verge of a new approach to dentistry.  Speaking as someone who practiced terrible dental hygiene as a callow youth and often found myself sitting in the dentist’s chair, mouth agape, listening to the whine of the drill and hoping it didn’t strike a nerve, I think an approach that lets teeth regenerate naturally would be terrific.  And, for those of us who have dental fillings that date back to the days of Beatlemania, the regeneration of natural teeth would have the advantage of avoiding visits to the dentist because old fillings are finally cracking or breaking and need to be replaced, too.