Sunday, December 28, 2008

What's that analemma for, anyway?

If you're lucky, you live in a house with an analemma.

It's not a pet, but an interesting feature printed on certain globes. It looks like a stretched out figure eight, and is where the sun would be in the sky if you took a photo of it at the same time every day for a year.

Those who live on the equator would see the sun move east and west, while someone at the North Pole...What would he see?

Believe it or not, the sun does trace this stretched out 8.

 The sun is at its lowest point in the 8 on or around the winter solstice and at the top of the 8 on the summer solstice. (In the Southern hemisphere the analemma is upside down.)

Two factors produce this oddity. The first is that Earth is tilted at about 25.4 degrees to the plane of its orbit.  That accounts for the east to west to east to west movement. The north to south apparent motion is a consequence of the Earth's orbit.

This should not come as a surprise, but the orbit it an ellipse.  Consequently, the planet speeds up when it is nearest the sun, in January, and slows down when it's farthest away, in July.  The difference in speeds is confounding, because our clocks are designed as if the orbit were a circle. 

Practically, this means that your watch is ahead for six months and then behind for six months,
compared to where the sun should be in the sky. This difference is called the Equation of Time. We never hear about this for some mysterious reason. We just keep following our watches and clocks, and let the sun do its own thing. 

What if you want to construct your own analemma? You could do it with a stationary camera, but it gets complicated. Either all of the exposures must be on one piece of film, or all of the frames must be assembled and superimposed at the end. 

Or, make one of those contraptions for viewing solar eclipses: a box with a pinhole at one end and a piece of paper at the opposite end. Now, all you have to to is keep the box in the exact same spot for a year, and at the same time every day, look inside, see where the sun is projected on the paper, and put a dot there. 

After a year, you should have an elongated figure eight shape. This still leaves some questions. For starters, the sun is obscured by clouds on many days in New England. More puzzling, is what does "the exact same time" mean?  

Given the Equation of Time business, should we use the actual "sun time" or our oscillating piece of quartz time?  Perhaps you could make two sets of dots, one for solar time, the other for man-made time. 

Also, since the box is going to be outside for a year, use something durable. Do not use cardboard.

Finally, you may have to explain to a neighbor or two what you're doing. If he or she asks why you're outside with your head in a box, just say, "I'm looking for my analemma."

Pretty soon everyone will leave you alone.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

There's this new stuff called papyrus...

Perhaps 10 or 20 years from now, someone similar to Steve Jobs will have a breathtaking idea.

Paper! It's cheap (compared to a computer or a Kindle), it is preservable forever, you can cut it apart and stick some in your pocket, make copies, fold it, and then do all sorts of other things with it before it's recycled. Oh, yes, it's recyclable, too.

Moreover,  you no longer have to plow through the Internet looking for relevant news, it's all printed there, selected, edited, and lovingly laid out, just for you.

But you can't surf the net with a bunch of printed paper, can you?

No, but that's what computers are for. The two are not mutually exclusive. Some egghead-types, or just people who want to know what's going on, could read words printed on paper and
look at the net. 

Yes, it's possible. A lot of people used to do that. Doesn't require great skill or a large amount of time.

And now that wood pulp trees can be grown in a day (this is in the future, remember), paper is made by robots in a clean factory using solar energy. It goes for, like, a penny a ton.

Yes! Those things in the rare book bunker at Yale? You can have modern versions of them!

But, hey, keep reading the digital kind. Moby Dick and Infinite Jest will always be the same. News is always different (in a all-the-same kind of a way). 

 Instead of everyone buying a computer for $100 to read the news, one company could buy a printing press, a computerized one, for $5,000, and then serve everyone for a nickel. Or a Yen. 

This could happen, right after people realize that nuclear power is actually safe, cheap, and less polluting than any other technology.

But that's another story.

One more thing...

This is self-serving, sort of like soft ice cream, but if any of the two or three people who read this know of any jobs out there, please let me know. 

Otherwise it'll be me and my wife living in a refrigerator box. (minus the refrigerator). 


The End. Je Suis Fini.

The previous post was written a few days before I was laid off from the New Haven Register.

In a city whose businesses and industry revolve around health and science, the Register deemed my job, unfortunately called "Science Editor," to be superfluous. An unaffordable luxury.

But apparently, through some strange cuber quirk or Google-glitch, I can still post here.  I have another blog, Abram Katz, created out of a sense of deranged egotism and passive aggressive pain.

Anyway, that's why I'm not writing the Health/Science page, or any other stories for the Register, anymore. I wish I were. 

But that's the way the asbestos crumbles. 


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is Everybody Happy?

Speaking of ridiculous nonsense -- and why not? -- we have Harvard scientists concluding that  happiness depends on the contentment of friends of friends, or neighbors you may not even know.

This may apply to some people, but it is demonstrably false for the vast majority. If it were true, after all, as long as one person on Earth is happy, so should everybody. The happy fellow is friends with another, who is friends with another, and so on, ad absurdum.

Besides, how can you possibly characterize someone as happy or unhappy? Some people are unhappy most of the time, and others are in as good mood most of the time, but no one is joyful at all times. 

Part of adulthood is learning how to keep these emotions private. If you found a $100 dollar bill, would you walk around with a broad smile and tell everyone you pass on the sidewalk? Would you call up your friends?

Perhaps $100 isn't sufficient to cause elation. Suppose instead that you won $50 million in a lottery. You're ecstatic. Is this going to make all of your friends jolly?

Some of them, sure. Most of the others will curse their luck, feel sorry for themselves, and/or ask you for money, since you now have an endless supply. Decline any of these requests and you've made an enemy for a long time.

Moreover, most people don't appear to be happy. At best they're able to maintain a guarded equilibrium. Next time you're at a store look around. See many smiling faces? No. 

And finally, what kind of society aspires to be happy all of the time? 

Only one in which people are losing their jobs left and right, banks are collapsing, businesses are failing, auto companies are on the brink of bankruptcy, newspaper chains are going under,  and people are afraid to spend money.

Good times. Happy people. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hey! Spread Out!

An oil company recently took out a full-page ad in the New York Times pointing out that the sunlight hitting Earth in one second could provide humans with enough energy to last many years.

And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem.

There's no efficient way to capture the energy of the sunlight, or to convert the energy into work.  Instead what the sunlight does is increase entropy. That is, it turns liquid water into water vapor, or ice into water. 
Entropy is a complicated concept with a technical meaning. To simplify, entropy is the amount of energy "lost" in a system doing work.  For example, gasoline is burned in a cylinder to make a car move. Some of the energy is translated into motion (work) while much is released as heat. 

The heat is absorbed by air, and other objects, and cannot be recaptured.  Almost everything humans do increases entropy: generating and transmitting energy, extracting and burning fossil fuels, cooking, blowing things up, heating our homes, going shopping.

Another way of thinking about entropy is the tendency of system to evolve from order into disorder.  Which brings us back to sunshine.

Some things on Earth progress from disorder to order. That list includes giving birth, making chocolate, growing watermelons, and evolution. All of these activities that seem to be making order from disorder, are doing so at the expense of the sun.

The sun, and other stars, ultimately provide the energy that drives everything, either directly or through creation of  heavy elements like uranium, which are cast off in supernovae and incorporated into planets.

The furiously turns order into chaos as it converts hydrogen into helium, sending radiation in every direction.  No matter how we harness sunlight, the disorder of the sun increases. In fact, the disorder of this entire universe is also decreasing, as new stars are born and burn out.

Burning fossil fuels, fissioning uranium, or finding alternate energy sources are our  relatively puny way of interrupting the grand flow of entropy. 

Current cosmology suggests that the universe will ultimately turn into a cold, dark empty place. But that won't happen for a long, long time.

Still, it's something to look forward to.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Ransome

This resume looks a lot like a ransom note. More like a "ransome."

It would have been easier to write this with a jar of ink and a quill. 

The question is, why do prefabricated "projects" inevitably turn into disasters? I especially like the small 'b' in bACHELOR'S degree. 

Anyone have any answers?

My Resume: Fonts gone insane

Abram Katz


New Haven Register

·     Science Editor                                                      1986-2008

     Wrote weekly Health/Science page consisting of feature story and column, Gray Matters. Selected and edited wire copy for page, and assigned art.    Supervised two reporters, assigned and edited their stories.   Covered Yale University, Yale School of Medicine, University of Connecticut, Wesleyan University and other local colleges and universities.  Also wrote daily and Sunday stories.


·     Environment Reporter

Covered state and federal departments of environmental protection. Issues included solid waste, hazardous waste, and Superfund sites. Followed enforcement of federal and state laws.


·     Transportation reporter

Beat included state and federal transportation departments, condition of bridges, highways, mass transit, Mianus River Bridge collapse, state DOT policy.


·     West Haven Reporter                                            1979

Responsibilities included city government. Series of stories on municipal corruption led to resignation of police chief, and city treasurer pleading guilty to felony involving illegal loans.

Fitchburg – Leominster Sentinel and Enterprise   1976-1978

·     Covered police and fire departments, community development block grants, wrote features, took photos.


Boston University 1975-1976

Received Master of Science degree in print journalism. Wrote master’s thesis on life and career of Upton Sinclair. Wrote additional thesis on Social Darwinism and development of American newspaper design. Courses included news and feature reporting and writing, communications law, survey of foreign press. Covered Middlesex Superior Court and wrote for school publication Boston Courier.

Washington University in St. Louis                   1971-1975       

Bachelor’s degree with honors in English Literature. Wrote honors thesis on Andrew Marvell political symbolism. Also took courses in biology, mathematics, astronomy, linguistics, vertebrate paleontology, philosophy, European history and art history.

University of Chicago Laboratory High School.


Able to explain complicated subjects clearly and on deadline in clear concise writing.

References and awards on request

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gotta do something about that water

Goodness, there's uranium in Madison's drinking water!

Something must be afoul. Who dumped it there? Is it tailings from a uranium mine?

None of the above. The fact is that uranium is a natural element found in sedimentary rock all over the world. 

Fortunately, all but a minute percent has a nucleus with 238 protons and neutrons. This renders the material incapable of sustaining a nuclear reaction.

No need to worry about mushroom shaped clouds.

Occasionally a uranium atom will emit an alpha particle, which is two protons and two neutrons. This turns the atom into thorium. Alpha particles are big, but weak. They cannot penetrate a piece of tissue paper.

The problem with drinking uranium-containing water is that uranium is a metal, and metals are often toxic, like lead or mercury, although we require iron, copper and a few others. 

Uranium deposits naturally break down into lighter radioactive elements, and in the process, release radiation.  Uranium is ultimately reduced to lead. Along the way, a bunch of other elements are formed.

This is where radon comes from. If there weren't uranium underground in these parts, radon wouldn't seep into basements or out-gas from bath water. Wherever there's radon, somewhere relatively nearby there's a uranium compound.

If you're not terrified of radon, no need to get excited about a little uranium.

If the water in Madison is absolutely loaded with uranium, by all means, stop drinking it or bathing in it. Perhaps the town could install a water supply system and draw from reservoirs.

Meanwhile, the Madison uranium has been there for at least a few million years. But water-borne uranium is not a freakish curse.

 There are plenty of other water sources that we avoid because of chemical "contamination."  People avoid drinking water with too much fluoride, we don't consumer water from sulfur springs, and no one can consume ocean water very long without dire consequences.

We shouldn't assume that any water is safe and potable unless a few basic tests are done. Since we've known about radon for decades, perhaps it should have occurred to someone to check for uranium. 

While we're at it, check the bottled water, too. After all, it comes from the same subterranean geology as the water in Madison.

Monday, November 17, 2008

But, why?

There are billions of blogs, more than anyone could look at in a lifetime.

So, why clutter the impossibly complex thicket of electrons with another one? Not solely because I think my thoughts are somehow more interesting or thought provoking than anyone else's. (They are. We'll get back to that.)

Consequently, this blog will not be another unexceptional exercise in solipsistic complaints or existential dread. At least not all of the time.

The goal here is to display some of my writing, perhaps a resume, and so on. Kind of dull, true, but it may -- just may -- allow me to find a job not at Wal-Mart. 

Or it might be my first step on the way to Wal-Mart.

We shall see.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The sun is the same in a relative way...

The sun is going through its "blankest" year in a long time.

There have been no sunspots out of 200 of the past 274 days. The sun goes through 11 years cycles of activity, and is at the nadir of the current cycle. Our star hasn't been this placid in 50 years.

Astronomers have also noticed that the sun is dimmer than ever. Its luminosity is only declined a fraction of a percent, but in solar terms, that's a lot of energy.

No one knows why sunspots erupt on the solar surface. The sun has a strong magnetic field, probably caused by its rotation. Since the enormous thermonuclear reaction is a ball of plasma, it does not spin like a solid object.

Different latitudes and depths move at different speeds. A spot on the equator makes a complete rotation every 25 days. All of these different layers produce a powerful magnetic field, that also rotates, until the field gets all tangled up and reaches a breaking point.

When the field breaks through the surface we see sunspots, which are up swellings of cooler material from the sun's interior. All of this wrapping and snapping is what is believed to lie behind the sunspot cycle.

Why so quiet? No one knows. It's not as if the sun is running out of fuel. The sun still has about 5 billion years of hydrogen left.

What effect, if any, the dimming is having on Earth's climate is also not known. Maybe in a few decades we'll be burning any organic material we can get our hands on to generate enough greenhouse gas to melt a little of the global ice sheet.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The truth, the whole truth, and way too much truth

India has the answer to water-boarding and other forms of torture.

The country is considering using magnetic resonance imaging to determine whether a suspect is lying. Presumably, certain parts of the brain go to work at the thought of mendacity.

So, you take the suspect, strap him between huge magnetics, zap him with radio waves, and bingo! He's either innocent or guilty.

The problem, as increasingly anxious Indians are pointing out, is that the system is extremely fallible.

How could it not be?

Making up a story, not telling all you know, or modifying the truth, are all forms of lying. All require memory. The basic issue here is that no one — no one — knows how the brain creates memory.

Somehow, a enormous collection of intertwined neurons supplies another enormous collection of intertwined neurons (your consciousness) with memories. However, memories could not exist in specific, easily identifiable parts of the brain.

Remember something. The last time you ate apple pie, let's say. You remember what the pie looked like, what it smelled like, how it tasted, who you ate it with, if you ate it alone and felt lonely, if your stomach hurt, how does this pie compare to other pies, and perhaps even less coherent thoughts.

Someone might start to think about cutting up the pie, and trying to remember high school geometry or trigonometry, and then the person who sat behind you in trig class and drew on your neck with a ballpoint pen, and how difficult it was to remove the marks.

Likewise, asking "Did you do it?" could trigger childhood memories of being punished, previous minor infractions, fear at the thought of incarceration, a memory of the last time you were this scared, how it felt when your father whipped you with a belt, and on and on.

Where do all of these memories lie? And how do you know if the MRI is picking up fresh guilt, or childhood shame?

Using brain scans to determine guilt makes the polygraph seem downright scientific.

Monday, September 8, 2008

You know you're killing yourself, right?

Telling acquaintances who smoked that it was bad for their health stopped being cool about 20 or 30 years ago.

So most people, or at least non-smokers, keep their thoughts to themselves. You know the lungs of that woman who smokes are probably the color of charcoal.
Her lungs are in the process of getting saggy and unable to provide oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.

In a few decades she'll be breathing oxygen through nasal tubes, shuffling around, and coughing.

Not lung cancer, but still a horrible way to die. Like drowning in your own lungs.

But it's not socially acceptable to tell smokers that. First of all, they know. Or they should know. The warnings on cigarette packs are obtuse. However, they're smart enough to read between the lines. Smoking can kill you in a dozen different ways.

Is it a moral duty to remind smokers of that? Someone should. Perhaps a spouse or significant other. It probably seems intrusive coming from a casual friend.

If you saw someone standing on the ramparts of a bridge, thinking about jumping off, would you do anything, or just walk away so he can kill himself?

My scars are better than yours. I could cut you open, but I'd have to charge

No new posts here since May, but there's a good reason other than lethargy, torpor, and sluggishness.

The person who writes this nonsense had to have open heart surgery to repair an extremely leaky mitral valve. For all of you cardiac fans, it was Barlow's disease.

The person (me), started having trouble breathing and walking at the same time. What was happening internally, was that the mitral valve, between the left atrium and left ventricle, was flapping in the blood like a ripped standard.

As a consequence, half the blood that was supposed to be going forward was going backward on each heart beat. This is called regurgitation.

One thing led to another, and the operation was scheduled for mid-May. Everything was fine until I awakened. To make an excruciatingly long story short, my chest and shoulders hurt very much. Some of this pain was caused by two drainage tubes, which were removed the day after the surgery.

My sternum also hurt because it had been split with a medical jigsaw and then wired together. After two or three narcotic filled days in the cardiac intensive care unit, I was transferred to a regular hospital floor.

Narcotics continued to flow, which was essential. Then I had to stay home for two or three months recuperating. Now I go to cardiac rehab three days a week. That won't continue forever.

Now, except for some brain damage, the person who generally writes this mess is back. Doesn't that leave a gap of two or three or four months unaccounted for? Yes.

That was the lethargy and sluggishness part.

Now I notice surgical scars on the beach. Mine are by far the most symmetrical.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Please Stop Chewing My Leg

Pandas. You've gotta love them.

They looke cute, they're harmless, and for goodness sakes, they're not even real bears! They're cuddly! They're the apotheosis of innocence and all that is good.

Well, for the taxonomically challenged, yes, Panda bears are bears.

Specifically, they are Ailuropoda melanoleuca, "black-and-white cat-foot." That's a genus within the family Ursidae, which includes grizzly bears, black bears, polar bears, and the spectacled bear.

Pandas are generally herbivorous, although they will eat fish, rodents, honey, eggs, and other non-plant goodies when available. See if you can find a photo of panda teeth. Major canine action.

But if you were out in the forest, you'd be better off running into a panda than a grizzly. However, keep in mind that pandas are as non-domesticated as their brothers and sisters in the zoo.

That doesn't mean, however, that pandas are docile do-gooders. Gu gu, a panda at the Beijing zoo, reportedly gnawed the legs of a 15-year-old boy that entered the bear's cage last year. The Beijing News reported that Li Xitao "had both legs gnawed to the bone."

Yogi and Booboo never did that.

Check You Tube and you can find videos of a panda trying to pull a man into the 300-pound bear's cage. Bad panda!

There reason there aren't more run-ins between humans and pandas is that people are basically driving pandas to extinction so that they can grow rice or build factories.

Pandas should be protected, not because they're adorable, but for the same reasons that any species should be rescued from oblivion. Nature is a continuum, and taking out pieces could have unexpected effects.

Moreover, they have the innate value of all life, and it's not up to us to decide what lives and what dies.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Are you controlling the computer or is it controlling you?

Microsoft XP isn't a barrel of laughs — except for one feature.

Microsoft engineers put some games into the operating system. Not games like "find the missing DLL" or "Where's the error in the registry," although those can give you hours of enjoyment. Not enjoyment, really, more like barely controllable rage.

No, these games are called games and they're actually games. Solitaire, battleship, a few other ones, and pinball.

Pinball games for computers are generally crummy. The ones for Mac OS X are worse than that; they seem to have been designed by apes with low self-esteem.

The Windows pinball game is pretty good. The physics and speed are good, meaning that the ball moves and bounces like a real ball. The other element is how fast the ball rolls down the playing field. Here too, Windows pinball is fine.

Consequently, it is possible to waste incredible amounts of time tapping the z and / keys to operate the flippers, aiming at targets, and generally keeping the ball in play.

But, what's going on here (other than putting your job or marriage in jeopardy)?

Are you really playing pinball? No. You are using a simulation of pinball. The simulation and the real thing are pretty similar. They involve moving your index fingers. On a real pinball machine you would be compelled to stand.

Most other computer or video games are also simulations. Most of the simulations are of activities you could not or would not engage in, like killing, crashing cars, flying fighter planes, and performing various sports.

These non-pinball games depend on manipulating symbols. "O" fires a missle, "X" is a kick to the head, and so on. All actions are mapped onto a controller with about a dozen controls. What are our brains actually doing?

Once the controls are memorized and become second nature, we translate an action into a push button, which changes values in the program and makes an action happen on the screen.

So we think the game is the simulation, while really, the simulation is happening in the brain.

Will humans eventually shun the real world and manipulate symbols, instead?

Or are we almost there?

Free drugs! Just drink a trillion glasses of water.

The Associated Press conducted an intensive study, discovering that the water supplies of many cities contain traces of pharmaceuticals.

This should click your skepticism meter up a few notches. The cities reviewed seem to get their water from different sources, which is problematic.

Take the drinking water in Southern Connecticut. For the most part is comes from reservoirs and is treated.

But let's back up.

Drugs end up in drinking water because people (and animals) take them and tiny amounts are eliminated in waste. This waste is then filtered, treated with chlorine, and pumped out. Now, if the effluent goes into the source of the water, as it might in Chicago, it seems plausible that drugs could be identified in drinking water.

We, on the other hand, get out water from reservoirs. This means our drug-containing waste is treated, sent to Long Island Sound, evaporates, and falls as rain. Some of the rain lands in the reservoirs, but a larger proportion seeps in after being filtered through organic materials in the forrest floor.
Reservoir water is then filtered through sand and activated carbon, chlorinated, and its acidity adjusted. Then it goes to your tap, picking up a little of whatever there is in the intervening pipes.

After going through this process, how many molecules of drugs, or drug metabolites could remain? By the way, there are plenty of other chemicals to ponder. Chlorine reacts with organic material to form trihalomethanes.

Then there's sodium, barium, strontium 90, lead, copper, and even a smidgen of uranium. The water is also tested for bacteria. All of these chemicals, and more, are regulated and cannot exceeed federal standards.

The water also may contain dozens of unregulated compounds, such as radon, chloroform, and a bunch of additional organic chemicals that result from reactions with chlorine.

At any rate, it seems unlikely that minute amounts of anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants, hormones, antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, and the rest, end up in treated reservoir water.

And if undigested drugs end up in drinking water, they cannot be in copious amounts. Modern instruments can find parts per trillion or even less. It's probably possible to find almost anything in water if you look closely enough.

It is said that in every glass of water, there are a few molecules that passed through Napoleon. And also, presumably, from every other person. This claim has to do with the enormous number of molecules in a glass of water.

Turns out the number is something like 10 multiplied by itself 24 times. This is orders of magnitude larger than the number of sand grains on the world's beaches.
What does all of this mean?

If you want to worry about water, worry about bacteria, protozoans, and other microorganisms that have struck water systems in the past.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Black as the driven snow

Let's make one thing clear.

Ice is clear.

It's not black. "Black ice" refers to ice that is difficult to see because it is in a thin layer over asphalt, which is more or less black.

Not that black ice wouldn't be interestingl. Imagine black snow. When you awoke after a storm, it would still be quiet, noise muffled by the snow. But it wouldn't look bright outside. It would look darker than usual.

Then, when you peered out of the window, everything would be covered with black. Tree branches would be coated in black. It would look like soot, or the sand on a volcanic beach. Or dirt.

Black snow would also change the world. Rather than reflecting heat, black snow would absorb it. The snow would melt more rapidly. There might not be glaciers, or polar ice caps. (There might not be any of those in a few years, anyway, but that's a different story.)

The climate would certainly be a little different with black snow. Also, black snow would have to be produced from black water. The oceans would be much warmer. The color of clouds? Black? Gray?

All because of black ice.

So let's cool it on that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Death

If an elderly relative has an advance directive, or living will, you may think his death will be a smooth passage.
Don’t count on it.
Certainly, it will be smoother for you than for him. You’re watching. He’s watching, too, from inside, through an undefinable mental haze.
You can leave his room after a few minutes when watching becomes too uncomfortable.
He can’t. He lies with the pain, perhaps one of the only feelings or emotions that he still possesses.
Being with him is slightly terrifying because you’re never sure when he may awaken. He groans, cries, tries to rip off bandages and throws punches at nurse’s aides. That’s not easy to watch.
His once brilliant mind helped determine the best ways to isolate plutonium in 1944. He then spent decades studying photosynthesis and chlorophyll. Now his brain is somewhere else.
It started a few years ago. As Alzheimer’s disease progressed and choked and tangled his neurons, he started to lose himself and his encyclopedic knowledge, his sense of humor, his irritability, his warmth, his fearfully bad temper.
At first, he could tell that something ominous was happening. But there’s no way to stop it. Every time you see him, his decline is appalling. He stops recognizing his offspring.
He thinks strangers are in his apartment. Who are those strange people? No matter how often he is reminded that they’re his children, he feels threatened.
For a while, you’re convinced that you can somehow jog his memory. Maybe a photo.
Some incontrovertible proof that you are his, and that he will understand in a burst of rationality. Then, you finally realize that he’s disappearing, going somewhere solitary and strange. After 95 years, he’s leaving and never coming back — but, he doesn’t know that. Does he?
Eventually, you avoid catching his eyes, fearful of how he may react. Or maybe you do not want to see the vacancy behind his gaze. Or the fear.
He is relocated to the floor with the demented people. He has two broken hips made of tenuous bone too thin to repair. Two broken ribs. They’ll never heal.
"Dr. Browner," whom you never see, is convinced against all evidence that he is improving. He’ll be fine in no time! Of course, he can recognize food!
No, he won’t. No, he can’t.
You want to find Dr. Browner to ask him what he’s thinking and perhaps grab and shake him by the collar. What’s his plan? He gives nurses orders and vanishes.
Meanwhile, the patient is weaker, weaker and increasingly unhappy. He moans. Can he please be made more comfortable? Just ease the pain. That’s all the family wants. They plead. They cry.
The head nurse and the floor nurses, who dispense morphine, are following contradictory orders from the invisible doctor and the hospice nurse.
In books, the person with power of attorney handles the Browners and nurses with a firm hand. No one has a firm hand now. But you help to straighten out the heartbreaking mess.
Soon, much sooner than you expect, he’s gone. Dead.
No, this was not smooth.
Did you relieve his suffering or help kill him?
His clothes still hang in the closet. He still has aftershave in the medicine cabinet. His ornate letter opener is on his desk, where he left it. The books he wrote and read wait, leaning on the shelf.
Did you allow him to die in peace, or just hasten his death?
You’ll have the rest of your life to think about it.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The smallest, shortest, and lightest

You may not have noticed this, but there are basic units of time, distance, and mass.

What this means exactly is best left to physicists, but for the rest of us: If you had a very (insanely accurate) watch, and you wanted to set it to exactly noon, not a nanosecond less or a femtosecond more, down the scale, there comes a point at which time is indivisible.

Same with length. The smallest unit of length is about 20 orders of magnitude smaller than a proton, which is already pretty small. This means, among other things, that there is no way to divide this smallest length.

It would be like dividing a photon, which you simply cannot do.

The smallest time is called the Planck time, and the smallest distance, the Planck distance. They were both named after Max Planck the famous physicist. The Planck time is how long it would take light to travel the Plank distance. This is an unimaginably short interval equal to a decimal fraction of 1 second, with 43 zeroes followed by a 1.

Since this is the shortest amount of time, that's where the big bang starts.

Books describe the Planck length and Planck time as the limits of what makes sense. Anything smaller than the Planck cannot be defined.

Then there's the Planck mass, which is about equal to a black hole with a radius of the Planck length.

Now, if there are smallest units of time, distance and mass, shouldn't there be corresponding maximum limits of the same things? There might be, but the values are of no value.

Physicists use Planck time, distance and mass, in quantum mechanics.

You might say they walk the Planck.