20 Things You Didn’t Know

The Book of the Week is “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Everything” by the editors of Discovery Magazine and Dean Christopher, published in 2008.  This book briefly covers a range of topics, regaling the reader with trivia and interesting factoids.

One topic covered was airport security. As might be recalled, at this book’s writing, “The U.S. government continues to spend untold billions developing technology designed to detect weapons [which were never found in Iraq]– but extremely little on techniques and training to ferret out troublemakers at our airports.”

There are at least sixteen thousand classified species of bees. On average, bees fly at fifteen miles per hour. The honey they make can be used as an antibacterial wound-healer, because it contains certain infection-fighting substances. The chapter on mosquitoes lamented that people must learn to live with the blood-sucking bugs; however, it completely failed to mention that there exist fish that eat mosquito eggs, thus keeping the pest’s population down in certain places in the world, such as Florida and Australia.

At the book’s writing, there was a museum on the history of contraceptives in Toronto, Canada. Read the book to learn additional fun information.

Brain Rules

[SIDENOTE: Strangely, anytime, but only when this blogger writes something controversial, or about Donald Trump, WordPress crashes. Just an observation.]

The Book of the Week is “Brain Rules” by John Medina, published in 2008.

The author wrote about various factors that affect brain function, and how the brain can function better with regard to exercise, evolutionary developments, memory, driving, sleep, stress, the senses and gender.

The author claimed that studies have shown that any amount of exercise is better for the brain and body as a whole than no exercise at all. Intelligence can be maximized in work and school environments when people have a knowledge-base plus creativity. Other research showed that a simple experience of magazine-reading changed the neurons in the brain of one identical twin but not the other twin who hadn’t done magazine-reading.

Medina related a few anecdotes from his personal life to illustrate his points. A memorable incident for him occurred when a dog came out of a lake and shook water all over him. During those ten seconds, a normal human brain would “…recruit[s] hundreds of different brain regions and coordinate[s] the electrical activity of millions of neurons.”

The author cited blind gender studies in which subjects were asked their opinions of a person’s behavior; subjects held negative opinions of the person they were told was female, and positive opinions when told the person was male.

Medina crowed about how awesome retention was when research subjects were subjected to multi-sensory presentations (such as academic lectures, as when visuals, written text and verbal communication were used) as opposed to any of these alone.  He advocated minimizing the reading by subjects of large chunks of text because tests showed that it was not as effective at getting subjects to retain information as was multi-media.

It appeared that the author was promoting dumbed-down education in general; perhaps because it is in the best interest of any university professor to tow his employer’s line (and possibly the government’s) in order to continue to receive research grants and further his or her career.

Read the book to learn of more neurological studies and the author’s ideas (which he admits are fantasies) that might improve cognitive functioning at work or school.

Unsolved Science

The Book of the Week is “Unsolved Science” by Bill Price, published in 2016.

This book is a compilation of articles discussing the various areas of science that humans have still to decipher.

One reason scientific mysteries remain is that they lie in regions difficult and expensive to study, such as the deep oceans and outer space.

Although it is known that humans have roughly half of the same DNA as bananas and 99% of chimpanzees, it is unclear what accounts for the differences in intelligence and linguistics between humans and the latter.

Read the book to learn why it is so difficult to find a cure for cancer; the causes of long-term global temperature changes; the pros and cons of nuclear power; and many other mysteries of the universe.

Case Files

The Book of the Week is “Case Files, 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science” by Larry Verstraete, published in 2011. This book briefly describes how science played a role in the investigations of various situations, such as homicides, discoveries of human remains, the root cause of an epidemic, astronaut deaths, art forgery, arson and many others.

The topic areas included forensic entomology, archeological anthropology, pathology, DNA fingerprinting, radiocarbon dating, video superimposition, spectroscopy, stable isotope technology, Raman microscopy, xylotomy and others.

When a dead body is found, and certain insects are present, a scientist can learn how many generations and lifespans of that insect elapsed from the time of death until the corpse’s discovery.

The gender, age and size of a murder victim can be discerned, even when the body is badly decomposed, from the bones. The nature of the teeth indicate age, and ethnicity is revealed by the skull’s features. DNA testing of various kinds is a whole other ball of wax.

Read the book to get an overview of the many ways science can provide evidence for reconstructing events to further the causes of justice, improve people’s quality of life and prevent future mishaps.

Brain Food

The Book of the Week is “Brain Food” by Dr. Brian Morgan and Roberta Morgan, published in 1987. This book discusses how diet can affect brain health, and which nutrients to consume in order to improve brain function when certain conditions are present. It covers stress, moods, appetite, PMS, learning and memory, allergies, drugs, brain development and aging.

In recent decades, there have been numerous contradictory studies sponsored by entities that wish to promote particular edibles. The authors of this book backed up their suggestions with credible scientific sources, and did not make any sensational claims about one specific substance or food.

Common sense dictates that exercise tailored to an individual is always healthy. An exercise program might call for additional protein consumption, however, as muscles require it for growth.

The brain is unable to store oxygen or energy, so it must consume a few hundred calories a day and receive a continuous blood supply. Calories that have particular nutrients, are going to optimize brain function. Here is some information on the kinds of nutrients to eat to maintain a healthy mind and body:

Vitamins B1, B6 and B12 are important for maintaining healthy neurological structure and activity. Whole grains are a source of the B vitamins.

Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that aid sleep and produce positive emotional vibes. Magnesium and vitamin B6 stimulate their production. B6 can be found in bananas, Grape Nuts, fish, liver and peanuts. Happily for some people, magnesium is found in chocolate; also– spinach and almonds.

The body is likely to be deficient in protein and calcium when it experiences stress of prolonged duration.

Studies have shown that a high-protein diet accelerates aging. Thus, protein should comprise only 13% of calories eaten. If taste buds become dulled with aging, try a zinc supplement.
Animal fat worsens artery clogging. One substance that might help is pectin, found in apples, oranges and grapefruit. Eating fish is also a mitigating factor.

High blood pressure increases with the consumption of pickled foods and cold cuts. It might decrease with potassium-filled citrus fruit, leafy greens, raisins and almonds.

According to the authors, the key to peak intellectual performance is sufficient iron– found in liver, Grape Nuts, beef, carrots, lamb and raisins. Memory can be improved with lecithin supplements. Don’t forget to eat wheat germ, peanuts and ham. Another important nutrient is vitamin E, found in leafy greens, other vegetables and whole grains.

Of course, all of the above should be done in moderation and the reader should consult his or her doctor before a radical diet is started. Read the book to learn a wealth of additional information on the substances to put in your body to stay happy and healthy.

The Ordinary Spaceman

The Book of the Week is “The Ordinary Spaceman” by Clayton C. Anderson, published in 2015. This book describes everything you ever wanted to know– including all the disgusting details– about riding and living in a spacecraft via NASA employment.

There were 338 men and women who left earth’s atmosphere between 1959, when NASA first began hiring astronauts, and 2013, when the probability of being hired was .6%. NASA has a laborious, rigorous annual recruitment process. The author was hired on his fifteenth try. Prior to that, he had worked for NASA as an engineer.

Once someone beats the odds and wins approval to go on a mission, they require months or years of training in extreme conditions, such as handling diverse, high-pressure physical and mental tasks underwater, atop a blizzardy mountain, in the desert, and in a device that imposes centrifugal force. Working in a tightly confined vehicle calls for a specific set of social and physical skills and talents. Read the book to learn the degrees to which the author possessed different ones, and how he fared in space.

The Disappearing Spoon

The Book of the Week is “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean, published in 2010.

This ebook consists of a series of anecdotes about elements of the periodic table. The author describes fundamental principles of chemistry, particle physics and astronomy; how certain elements were discovered or created, and their identifiers; and the reasons why there might or might not be life on other planets.

One bit of history thrown in, was that, during WWII, the Nazis bartered gold they had stolen– for tungsten (a valuable ingredient in weaponry) from supposedly neutral Portugal. Tungsten is a hard, solid metal that has a very high melting point.

Other elemental trivia include the facts that tantalum and niobium are used in phones for their density, heat-resistance and conductive abilities; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium and the one dropped on Nagasaki contained plutonium. With advances in computer science, Monte Carlo simulations (a mathematics model that computes probabilities) have become used more often than physical experiments in recent decades.

Read the book to learn how it was determined that cadmium was poisoning the rice paddies near the Kamioka mines in Japan just after WWII, how astronauts died in an accident when nitrogen was used in a spacecraft, what “measurement scientists” do, and much more.

The Antidote

The Book of the Week is “The Antidote” by Barry Werth, published in 2014. This suspenseful saga is about the public drug company, Vertex.

Vertex has created the core substances in drugs that treat niche diseases, such as hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis. It has partnered with various other drug companies to use their resources.

Unconventionally, in the 1990’s, Vertex’s employees were organized into teams working on protein targets rather than those working on different diseases. The company’s teams were demoralized when they failed month after month to come up with a successful molecule.

The cost of American drugs is so high not just because the drugmakers are greedy, but because their employees feel entitled to a large reward for creating an effective product that does minimal harm to patients. They take tremendous risks– acquire pricey, extensive educations in organic chemistry and such, working long daily hours, suffer loads of stress from dealing with grant applications, patent disputes, licensing issues, doctor-insurer issues, undergoing the rigorous process of seeking FDA approval after laboring months or years on a drug substance– possibly applying for approval at the same time as another company with a competing product, and face the possibility of being laid off anytime. This is why life-saving, life-prolonging medicines are astronomically expensive. However, the drugs would not exist, but for the necessary evil of a greed machine that raises the funds to pay for the price of creating them.

Vertex posted a “profit” of more than $2 million in the fourth quarter of 1993, even though it had yet to sell even one pill. Its financial arrangements with its partners allowed it to claim that its income exceeded its expenses. By the end of the 1990’s, however, there were still no actual drugs produced, and the company was likely many years and hundreds of millions of dollars from the market. It was thus a likely takeover target. Some of Vertex’s scientists and lawyers became avid day-traders of the company’s stock in the autumn of 2000, after a deal with Novartis.

Trading rumors fly all the time, and one influential analyst at a big-name investment bank might downgrade a drug company’s stock, causing a selloff. In the early 2000’s, there was an SEC accusation of insider trading against Vertex’s house counsel. Ironically, it is common practice for panel members of the FDA to receive financial support in research-funding from many pharmaceutical companies.

Those companies that are public must answer to Wall Street. Unsurprisingly, at numerous medical conferences, their executives spout cliches such as “…We believe it’s a matter of time before we break this disease wide open and make a really big difference for a lot of people.”

Read the book to learn about actions Vertex took in research, development and finance in order to stay in business twenty years while accumulating losses of more than $1.5 billion; the causes of its high turnover of executives; how it became more geared toward finding commercial applications with its research results, and how it had fared product-wise and financially by autumn 2013.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber, MD, published in  2010. This long book describes the career of Dr. William Halsted.

Halsted was born in 1852 in New York City. There was still much ignorance about medicine in his generation. Fatal diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis were rampant. He developed a passion for medicine at Yale University. The most prominent doctors of his age included Pasteur, Lister, Morse, Hunter, Wells, Koch, Morton, Young and Warren. They spurred progress in sanitation, anaesthesia, and the collection of new information and techniques for treating patients.

In the 1870’s, Columbia College, Physicians and Surgeons didn’t require undergraduate degrees for entry because it was seeking revenue from student tuition. The three-year program was all lectures– no labs, no interaction with patients. In the 1870’s, during Halsted’s internship at Bellevue Hospital, many personnel didn’t wash their hands before operating, and smoked.

In late 1884, Halsted started using cocaine as a local anaesthetic in dentistry. He displayed, “…hyperactivity, rambling speech, inattention, and suspended decision-making ability.” Medical students and their teachers started using cocaine as a pick-me-up. They became addicted. “The drug was readily available in Europe, through Merck, and there was no stigma associated with its purchase.” In late 1886, Halsted went to work at Johns Hopkins Pathological– the “Bell Labs” of medicine. He went to Baltimore because his addiction had wrecked his career in New York. He substituted morphine for cocaine.

It is unclear how much better Halsted could have performed were it not for his addiction. He did have a brilliant career, but there were bouts of irresponsibility, socially and teaching-wise. He missed classes, started surgery at 10am instead of 8 after a while, failed to show up for meetings, and retreated to his country home for almost half the year. One positive side effect of his addiction was that Halsted delegated complete patient care to residents when he had morphine withdrawal symptoms. So the residents got a golden opportunity they would not have had otherwise, to learn their craft.

Side Note (There’s nothing new under the sun.): “As a group, they [nurses] felt themselves underpaid and overworked.” The Training School taught them to cook and clean. They were required to wear brown Oxford shoes.

Halsted experimented on dogs on and off for a couple of years, between months-long stints in drug rehab. He began seeing human patients for surgery in early 1889. He pioneered the medical-school residency program. He instituted the training of surgeons to train other surgeons. Three other doctors at Johns Hopkins who wrought major change in medicine in the U.S. were William Osler, William Welch, and Howard Kelly. Halsted specialized in surgery for breast cancer and inguinal hernia.

Johns Hopkins wanted to remain on the cutting edge of medicine by opening a medical school but it needed money to do so. Female heirs of prominent, wealthy families raised the money and placed conditions on the school’s opening, requiring gender equality. After much controversy, it opened in the fall of 1893.

Read the book to learn how medicine in America changed through the years of the late 19th into the 20th century, and how, according to this book, Johns Hopkins led the way.

The Cure

The Book of the Week is “The Cure” by Geeta Anand, published in 2008. This ebook tells the emotional, suspenseful story of how a family coped with three disabled children, two of whom were suffering from a genetic disease for which a cure is yet to be found.

In the late 1990’s, John Crowley’s daughter and son were both diagnosed with Pompe disease, a muscle disorder. Patients, with varying severity, “have imperfectly produced acid alpha-glucosidase enzyme” which results in paralysis, obstructed breathing, and, if left untreated, death before the age of five.

Even though Crowley possessed the personality, talents, skills, education and privileged background that one would think would allow him access to a life-saving enzyme to save his children, he had to face numerous obstacles. The father naturally fell into the role of entrepreneur to do so. His wife provided invaluable emotional support and around-the-clock care of the children with the help of nurses; not to mention the running of the household.

Nevertheless, lots of genetic and environmental luck determines whether patients become fully cured and/or whether the quality of their lives improves significantly, or whether they die– even when they are sufficiently fortunate to take part in a trial of a new life-saving medicine. Death would be inevitable without the medicine.

Every patient is different. There are many different criteria the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers when deciding whether to approve particular medical products for sale. Money plays a major part in whether a new product ever sees the light of day. A young medical research company raises funds through venture capitalists, and because the whole operation carries extremely high risks, if the company achieves success– the rewards, fittingly, are also extremely high.

Scientists must do years of preclinical testing on animals to make sure a new medicine works sufficiently well before even considering administering it to humans. In the United States, possible deadly consequences and possible future litigation motivate the scientists to act with integrity by performing tightly controlled experiments, so as not to have to fudge research results.

Another aspect of drug development, is avoiding a conflict of interest such as that in Crowley’s situation. He played a pivotal role in the race to bring a medicine to market; it appeared he was doing it to get the medicine for his own children.

The estimated annual expense of the enzyme for each child was $200,000, and $1 million for all future annual medical expenses, including the enzyme, plus wheelchairs, nurses, ventilators, catheters, etc.

Read the book to learn of the Crowley family’s experiences with American biotechnology.