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.