There are things more scary than needles

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When I took freshman chemistry forty something years ago, my biggest concern was not what it should have been. It should have been to learn as much about chemistry as I could. Instead, I had another preoccupation.

I was terrified that my lab partner was going to kill me.

You must understand that, as far as I know, he didn’t wish me dead. He had signed up for chemistry only to fulfill his general science requirement, and he resented the university making him do things like that. His revenge was to do just barely enough studying to avoid flunking and to refuse to take anything seriously.

For example, he considered me a useful but annoying nerd (I was doing all the calculations for our experiments) for explaining to him that if you tightly seal a flask of liquid with a rubber stopper and then place it over a Bunsen burner, there is a decent chance that it will get mad and go boom in your face. Or that, yes, strong acids or bases do not make ideal skin lotions or eye drops.

(He was majoring in business administration, in case you’re interested. He thought science was a waste of his time. He saw no use in any knowledge that wasn’t directly involved in moving money around. I hope he isn’t somewhere making decisions about stuff like whether the crews on deep water oil rigs who are begging to have their worn-out equipment replaced ought to get their requests granted. Come to think of it, that would explain a lot.)

After heading off a few near-disasters, I dreaded going to chemistry lab. I hadn’t signed up to be a fire warden or a paramedic.

I think I actually screamed at him and nearly caused other accidents in the lab myself when he put his thumb over the top of a test tube containing hot, concentrated sulfuric acid and was about to give the contents a good shake and himself one less thumb. He was pissed off at me for making such a fuss.

Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s pathetic.

I live in a paradoxical country where we have access to extraordinary fruits of science and technology, but where a big chunk of our kids leave school knowing far less about how the world works than their peers elsewhere in the developed world. As if that weren’t bad enough, this level of ignorance or indifference or even hostility to knowledge can be genuinely dangerous.

The June 2013 Scientific American has a piece on the steadily declining percentages of children being inoculated against a number of potentially dangerous infectious diseases.

In 1952 alone, during my lifetime, over 58,000 kids in my country contracted poliomyelitis. That’s about par with the total number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Many of those kids never walked again. Some ended up in iron lungs. Some of them died.

In the pre-vaccine era, my mother was scared to death, She had good reason to be. Her kids had no protection against polio.

In countries where they were conducted, aggressive campaigns to inoculate kids with the Salk and later the Sabin vaccine stopped such mass outbreaks, although, tragically, in some areas religious leaders (I believe the last group outbreak in the U. S. was within a religious community that refuses modern medicine) declared the vaccine to be contrary to their religion.

As a result, children in these areas have been crippled or killed unnecessarily. (It also certainly didn’t help that the U. S. has on occasion used vaccine programs as covers for intelligence gathering. Good move. Take people who are already xenophobes and give them reasons to distrust the innocent health worker who knocks on the door.)

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-cia-fake-vaccination-campaign-endangers-us-all

If you choose not to inoculate your kids against a serious infections disease, you may get lucky and live in a place where the other parents are more sensible than you are. In that case, the odds of your kid running into an infected child are very low. Some figures you may have seen on the low risks of an unprotected child contracting a serious infection are based on the assumption that there is no almost no one around who’s infected.

It’s like saying you don’t need a seat belt if your car never leaves the driveway because a motionless car is involved in very few accidents.

However, as more and more parents buy into a lot of hysterical nonsense that inoculations are somehow evil because they aren’t “natural” or because they saw some crank’s website (although hardly anyone is as cranky as I) or a daytime talk show host attracting eyeballs for advertisers by promoting the scary idea that standard vaccines cause autism (the overwhelming evidence from dozens of studies indicates that they don’t, and the original paper that supported the connection between vaccines and autism was later withdrawn due to serious flaws that throw the conclusions into grave doubt) the percentages of unprotected kids has been steadily rising.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=discredited-vaccine-autism

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=discredited-vaccine-autism

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/why.htm

(Don’t believe me? Fine. There is an easy way to ignore the advice of  all those smarty pants doctors and scientists: tell yourself that there is a vast, highly organized, amazingly secret, and motiveless conspiracy by the entire planet’s medical and scientific community to use vaccinations to kill and cripple children just out of sheer meanness and spite. Guys selling beet and mouse turd soup as the real protection against infectious disease and cancer who tell you that vaccinations are evil are persecuted heroes who will one day be vindicated because, after all, some people said Galileo was nuts;  therefore, the experts are always wrong and the cranks are always right, even when they just make stuff up and the experts have a boatload of supporting evidence. Can’t fault that logic. However, if you believe things like that, you hardly need my advice. You’re already getting all the messages and guidance you need from the mother ship in orbit around Uranus.)

There are enough unprotected kids out there now that it’s a bit like the danger caused by a drought. Lots of very dry grass, one cigarette, and you have a killer brushfire.

All it takes is one infected kid walking into a school where five or ten percent of the kids are wide open to contracting something nasty, and some families could find themselves living a nightmare from over half a century ago.

I’m from way back then. It’s a destination you don’t want to visit in your time machine.

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/why.htm

Witches may come in through your keyhole and break your heater!

Everybody remembers the many thousands of people put to death in Europe for witchcraft and the Salem Witch Trials, but did you know that belief in the supernatural is still leading to the persecution of innocent people who are thought to be creatures of supernatural evil?

In parts of Africa, the superstitious routinely discriminate against or assault people with the misfortune to have albinism, a non-supernatural medical condition that results in abnormally pale skin. Some people there believe that afflicted individuals are devils. People with albinism are even killed by witchdoctors who use their victim’s body parts as ingredients in magic spells for which they charge fees.

There is always somebody looking for a way to make a buck off human misery.

http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/17/world/africa/josephat-torner-albinism-tanzania/

In Papua New Guinea, and, I stress, in the present day, we have reports of several superstition-driven atrocities:

“In February, the world was shocked when graphic photographs circulated on the Internet of a 20-year old mother being burnt alive in Mt Hagen in Papua New Guinea’s northern highlands. Kepari Leniata had been accused of sorcery (also called sanguma or puripuri) and blamed for the unexplained death of a six-year old local boy. More horrific incidents were to follow. On March 28, six women and one man were branded with hot irons as part of an Easter “sacrifice” in the Southern Highlands. Their fate is still unknown. A graphic image was also circulated of a woman from Wa village, outside Mendi town in the Southern Highlands Province. She was accused of practicing witchcraft and villagers stripped her naked and tortured her. Christian pastors reportedly took part in the torture. In April, two elderly women were beheaded after being tortured for three days. Four women were also kidnapped—one of them a teacher and women’s rights advocate, Helen Rumbali, was beheaded by a mob in Lopele in southern Bougainville. “

http://www.islandsbusiness.com/2013/5/cover-story/witchcraft-saga/

Just in case anybody thinks “it can’t happen here” take at look at this story about an airport screener working for TSA, Carole Smith, who was accused by a co-worker of putting a spell on her car’s heater.

The accuser filed an official complaint about being bewitched that caused Ms Smith serious trouble with her job and her relationships with her coworkers. I am not making this up.

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/41959553/ns/business-us_business/t/whistle-blowing-witch-grounded-tsa/#.UZeeWuD8uJM

I don’t think there is any danger of Ms Smith being burned as a witch on the tarmac at Albany International Airport, but it might be instructive to look at the last time, as far as I know, that someone was arraigned for witchcraft in the United States.

The following  incident in Fentress County, Tennessee is taken from Carolyn Sakowski’s book Touring the East Tennessee Backroads:

“In 1835, an old man named Stout, who lived a reclusive life, did not attend church, and sat up late at night reportedly reading strange books, was accused of being a witch when a young girl became violently ill with a disease that the doctor could not diagnose.

“A large posse armed with guns loaded with silver bullets—as it was thought that nothing else would kill a witch—went to arrest Stout. An array of witnesses at his arraignment hearing testified that they had seen him ‘escape from dwelling houses through the keyhole in the doors, and that he had thrown people and animals into strange spells by his influence when they were miles away from him.’”

Despite such irrefutable evidence, the presiding judge and the prosecuting attorney (possibly the only other two people in the area besides Mr. Stout who read books besides  the Bible) refused to indict Mr. Stout. It probably took considerable courage to go against local majority opinion like that. Good for them!

As someone who sometimes writes horror stories with a supernatural bent, this makes me wonder if perhaps I should stop. Credulous and ignorant people are far too eager to seize on these myths as an excuse to reach out and hurt someone.

 

We have met the aliens, and they are us

Several weeks ago I sent a sample of my spit off to a commercial lab for DNA analysis. I got some results back yesterday. Some of the medical stuff was a little scary. I won’t go into that.

What did interest me was a finding I wasn’t looking for.

I need to give you a little background first. Over the past couple of decades, scientists have figured out how to sequence the DNA of organisms from very small samples. Sometimes they can recover enough DNA to do their tricks from the unwashed glass you drank from last week or from the bones of a several-centuries dead king who turned up buried under a British parking lot.

(In case you haven’t heard about that, what has now been confirmed to be the remains of Richard III turned up under a car park. As you might gather from how they threw him out with yesterday’s eggshells and pizza crusts, he wasn’t a popular guy.

Geneticists have confirmed that the skeleton belonged to the Tricky Dick of the fifteenth century by comparing DNA extracted from the bones with the DNA of living people who have well-documented genealogies showing them to be the several-times-great-grand nieces and nephews of the king voted most likely to have the cook spit in his soup. Don’t remember Richard III? Now is the winter of our discontent? The little princes in the tower? The really cool Third Reich film version of the Shakespeare play from a few years back? No? Never mind.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZQAQSFsUgM

Think those were old bones under that Toyota? Ha!

DNA analysis can now be done with bones of people who have been dead not for a measly few hundred but for tens of thousands of years! Scientists have been able to pull usable DNA from the bones of our cousins the Neanderthals.

It turns out that they were kissing cousins.

The short version is that unless all your ancestors decided to hang out in Africa over the last 50,000 years or so, somebody in your family line probably got intimate with a Neanderthal. You know how it is: long Ice Age night, there won’t be anything on television for 35,000 years, and somebody just invented beer. . . .

Neanderthals and the branch of proto-humans who eventually evolved into modern humans in Africa had parted company several hundred thousand years earlier. By the time a few modern humans started trickling out of Africa about 50,000 years ago and having family reunions with their long-lost kin in Eurasia, the two groups had evolved into different species. Think tigers and lions. Definitely some noticeable differences, but still similar critters in many respects.

Sometimes closely related species can make whoopee and produce viable offspring. It tends to be more the exception than the rule—most of the time it doesn’t work—but it can happen.

By comparing the DNA of long-term African humans with the DNA of Neanderthals and the DNA of non-African modern humans, geneticists have been able to identify genes that came into our modern global gene pool from our Neanderthal cousins.

It looks as if the aforementioned whoopee produced viable offspring often enough that a little Neanderthal DNA made its way into the human gene pool. We even have what looks like the skeleton of a first-generation hybrid. The DNA of some living individuals is as much as 4% Neanderthal.

http://discovermagazine.com/2013/march/14-interbreeding-neanderthals#.UY1aGuD8uJM

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_evolution/2012/10/neanderthal_and_denisovan_genetics_human_ancestors_interbred_with_extinct.html

Having that much Neanderthal DNA is rare. The average for non-Africans is about 2.5%. According to my test results, 3.2% of my DNA is Neanderthal, which apparently means I have more Neanderthal DNA than 99% of modern humans.

By the way, there is evidence that Neanderthals used cosmetics, cared for their sick (Neanderthal skeletons exist showing healed fractures that would have at least temporarily kept the injured individuals from surviving without help) and 60,000 years ago were tenderly burying their dead in graves lined with flowers. All that suggests that they were hardly the hulking brutes of popular imagination.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8448660.stm

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Skeletons-of-Shanidar-Cave.html

So what happened to our cousins?

At this point, we don’t know. Were they unable to adapt to climactic changes? Did modern humans engage in the genocide of an alien species that was competing for the same ecological niche? (They looked quite different from homo sapiens, and we know for damn sure that “kindness” is not a word that comes to mind in describing how humans treat even members of their own species who seem at all odd.) Were they decimated by diseases introduced by modern humans the way that diseases like smallpox introduced by Europeans all but wiped out Native American populations? At this point, the explanation is up for grabs.

What is clear is that, whether or not we ever meet extraterrestrial aliens with whom we can make whoopee (take a look at Mr. Spock’s family tree), modern humans have already encountered another intelligent humanoid species. In the end, the planet wasn’t big enough for both of them. Stephen Hawking thinks it might be a bad idea to attract the attention of alien societies. Maybe he has a point.

 

 

Mary Roberts Rinehart, the woman who inspired Batman

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/rosetta-stones/2013/05/02/the-woman-who-crossed-the-cascades-and-inspired-batman/

“She was a wife and mother; a nurse, feminist, adventuress, playwright, comedy writer, war correspondent, advocate for Native American rights who was initiated into the Blackfoot Tribe. She marched for women’s suffrage. She wrote about the injustice of wife-beating long before it was popular to take up such a cause. She was a breast cancer survivor who advocated for breast exams in an age when such things weren’t often talked about. She was the first female war correspondent on the Belgian Front in World War I; King Albert chose her to take his first statement on the war. She crossed the Cascades on horseback over a little-explored pass that nearly killed her, and floated uncharted rapids on the Flathead River in a wooden boat.”

Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini in the haunted fairyland

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an intelligent man, and a good one. He had earned a medical degree and practiced medicine. He had written a good deal of fiction that included the intricate puzzles that are the Sherlock Holmes stories. He personally investigated and helped to clear two innocent men of crimes for which they had been convicted. (In both cases, racial prejudice had played a role in the convictions.) Not too shabby.

But people Doyle loved kept dying on him. His wife Louisa, a brother, two brothers-in-law, his nephews, and finally his son Kingley, who took a couple of years to die of complications from grisly wounds he received at the Battle of the Somme. Doyle became severely depressed, and went through what amounted to a religious conversion. He became convinced that he could communicate with his lost loved ones.

If you are now imagining elderly mediums in high collars and floor-length skirts, ghosts in lacy ectoplasmic lingerie, and great-great-granddad’s spittoon floating around the parlor like planes stacked up over an airport where they laid off the air traffic controllers, then you have successfully plotted the trajectory of Doyle’s spiritual pilgrimage.

Doyle was not a man who went in for half measures. If he was going to dive into the supernatural, by God, he was going to go off one of those hundred-plus-foot cliffs in Acapulco.

Honestly, I have to admire his guts. After all, how many grown men with medical degrees—or little girls over the age of six—will admit to believing in fairies?

Not only did he do that, but he wrote an entire (nonfiction!) book about them and included photos of the Cottingley Fairies, which he seems to have accepted as completely real. (Recipe: pose cute, post-Edwardian little girl, add drawings of fairies cut out of children’s story books, take photograph.)

Image

And he believed in Harry Houdini. He was convinced that Houdini had supernatural powers. Mind you, this was despite Houdini’s frequent and increasingly exasperated statements to his friend that everything he did was no more than stage magic.

To prove his point, Houdini once spent weeks setting up an elaborate trick that looked impossible without the supernatural. He had a cotton wad “magically” write words on a slate that Doyle thought he had written in private and were known only to him. Then Houdini carefully explained to Doyle, step by step, exactly how he had pulled it off.

Doyle didn’t buy the explanation. He remained convinced that Houdini’s spiritual blindness prevented him from accepting the reality of his own occult powers. He grieved that his friend rejected The Truth.

I believe that Doyle, dotty as he was, was completely sincere and meant well. I have relatives like that.

What’s important to understand is that Houdini wanted to believe that you could chat with the dead as much as Doyle did. Houdini desperately missed his mother and wanted reassurance that he would see her again. However, unlike Doyle, he was exceptionally well-qualified to detect fraud and trickery, and even after going to dozens of séances, some of them conducted by celebrated mediums, that’s all he ever found.

He wanted it to be real, and it turned out to be a pack of lies and illusions designed to skim money off grieving people. That pissed Houdini off. He went public.

Image

Since Doyle was the most prominent spokesperson for the I-see-dead-people industry, these public attacks on spiritualism strained Houdini’s friendship with Doyle beyond the breaking point.

Speaking of points, mine is that if you are selling fiction with a supernatural element you need to keep in mind that people want to believe in this stuff.

Consumers don’t want reality; they want the skeptics proven wrong and humiliated. Consumers want their belief in spooks and psychic powers and astrology and magic reinforced.

Television and cable networks, local television news, the movie business, magazines and newspapers, and the book-publishing industry all understand this. They make products to sell to the spiritual heirs of Arthur Conan Doyle. There is no significant market for skepticism.

The last time I saw a piece of fiction where the skeptics were proven right was a cold war story where a highly skilled troupe of magicians from a magic circus in Prague nearly convinced an American physicist that his dead daughter wanted him to defect in order to balance the nuclear arms race and save the world. That was decades ago, and in our era it would probably never see the light of day.