Science & Medicine

Day 1000: How It Ends

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Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.

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Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…

Day 993: Sexual Selection In Darwinian Theory, or Why You Can’t Get Laid

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Herbert Spencer was the 19th century philosopher, scientist and all-around smart cookie who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” after having read Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. While some may argue each and every tenet of evolutionary theory (much to the exhaustion of everyone who actually knows a little something about science), we have come to realize that Spencer was only half-right in determining which genes get promoted into the next generation. It’s also a matter of Survival of the Sexiest.

Sexual selection extends beyond the boast-worthy ability to fend off predators, gather food and shoot zombies with a crossbow. Mate selection based on these factors certainly occurs, but the truth grabs many more hairs between its gnarled knuckles. So much of who we are plays into our subconscious exigency to be sexually selected.

So if you’re finding your Saturday nights have of late been more occupied by binge marathons of Murder, She Wrote than sweaty, carnal bodyslapping, perhaps you should turn to science to understand why. With a few tiny modifications to your being, you might just find yourself crotch-deep in sexual social butterflydom.

English dictionaries

You need to word good. Humans – at least most humans – possess a far greater vocabulary than that which is needed for basic communication. It’s true – most of us know words like ‘dungarees’, ‘mellifluous’ and ‘woebegone’, but how often do we really need to use them? Evolutionary scientists suspect we throw down this excess of verbiage in an effort to show off our intelligence to potential mates. This has been tested; we tend to spew a more flowery and profound lexicon when we’re in a romantic mindset. Then again, some of us do it just to make a living. Read more…

Day 991: The Subjective Science of Getting Friendly With Your Water

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Good morning, water. You look lovely today. The way you have meticulously extracted the energizing essence of those crumbly brown nuggets of Sumatra in my coffee maker really brings out the glimmer in your droplets. Look, I’m a married man, but if I wasn’t, I would totally be gettin’ up in dat aqua, you feel me?

According to Dr. Masaru Emoto, I may have just created a more healthy and vibrant cup of coffee. Dr. Emoto is a revolutionary oracle of scientific knowledge, inasmuch as he has concocted his own definitions of the words “scientific” and “knowledge”. Dr. Emoto has “proven” (and it’s hard to find a source for his work that doesn’t nestle that word between the comforting pillows of quotation marks) that positive energy makes water better.

Not better-tasting, not more nutritious or refreshing… just better. Happier. More wholly fulfilled. Dr. Emoto unearthed that line where metaphysics and alternative medicine cross over into crazed Lynchian fiction, then leaped across it like a doped-up Olympian. He landed among the Technicolor bobbles of the absurd, cultivated his own particular brew of ludicrous reasoning and slapped a price tag on it.

And we bought in. Oh, how we bought in.

How could we not trust that sincere face?

How could we not trust that sincere face?

Masaru Emoto earned his doctorate at the Open University for Alternative Medicine in India, though I feel “earned” should be yet another resident of Quotes-Marks Manor, as I have unearthed a couple of sources which claim that such a degree can be bought for around $500. But Dr. Emoto’s doctorness is relatively moot, as he immediately set out to sail the vague ocean of alternative medicine, which contains far more fetid flotsam than it does navigable current. Read more…

Day 989: The Medicinal Repast Of History’s Maddest Madman

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There’s a tiny voice inside my head, that interminable squawk of the ever-shrinking crimson-lensed optimist, who wants to believe that Dr. Theodor Morell was doing his best to assassinate Adolph Hitler from the inside out. Morell was the Fuhrer’s personal physician, and as the world began to warp around the consequences of his patient’s actions, his freewheeling approach to the prescription pen increased. Was he doing his ill-informed best to keep Germany’s leader in good health? Or was he subversively hoping to kill him?

Okay, that’s an easy one; Dr. Morell was an incompetent putz who appeared to have forged his medical path through a garbled jungle of whim and outlandish guess-work. Had he truly been looking to snuff out Hitler’s flame he would have been just a bit more thorough in his boobery. Also, he would have likely been facing a swift execution by the other Third Reich brass.

The truth behind Hitler’s health is a curious stew of horrors and weirdness. The man deserves none of our pity of course, but in looking over what we have learned about his bizarre journey through Germany’s medical industry, I have to wonder if some of his unmitigated evil might have been a result of the strange goings-on within his innards.

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In November 2008 a curious story wormed its way into the news cycle. The story can be traced through Polish priest and amateur historian Franciszek Pawlar, who claims to have once spoken with a man named Johan Jambor (pictured above). Jambor had been a medic for Germany during the first World War, and it was he who treated a wounded Adolf Hitler at the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916. Hitler had received a wound to the “groin” – a more specific account I’m afraid I can’t offer. Read more…

Day 988: That’s No Moon

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With only a dozen days remaining of my self-imposed sentence in this asylum of perpetual prose, I am scootching toward the realization that there are some topics I will never get to. The hidden subtext within the dialogue of each Misfits of Science episode will remain unexplored, and I’m afraid the sacred ghost notes that elevate the percussive harrumph of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” and Toto’s “Rosanna” will fail to make the kilograph cut.

Instead I must devote these dog-yawn final days to loftier, more resonant subjects – yesterday’s investigation into Mozart’s poop jokes notwithstanding. And so I look to the moon – that luminous gob of celestial spittle, that pearlesque voyeur who knows all of our funkiest sins, the swiveling muse of the incurable drunkard. The moon pours elbow grease on our tides and provides an alibi when we need one for our meandering sanity. And before we had the cognitive wherewithal to stack our chips on science, the moon provided the palette for some of our strangest superstitions.

The moon puts on a nightly spectacle; what earth-bound broadcast can compare to the thrill of a clump of rock bigger than our entire continent dangling in the air over our heads? And even with Neil Armstrong’s size 9½ prints on her cheeks, she still retains an exotic air of mystery.

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Before Georges Méliès stabbed it with a wayward rocket ship, the man in the moon had a starring role in olde-timey mythology. In the biblical Book of Numbers, one of the more cynical stories tells of a man who was sentenced by God to death by stoning for the heinous crime of gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Early Christian lore suggested that the man in the moon was that very man. Another tradition claims the man is Abel’s blood-bro Cain, forever doomed to circle the Earth. Read more…

Day 978: Doc Brinkley’s Magical Goat Balls

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It makes perfect sense. If a man is having a hard time encouraging his noble groin-soldier onto the battlefield, perhaps his problem is a lack of testicular fortitude. If only he could harness the power of nature’s potential through his impetuous manhood. If only he could possess the unflinching might of goat balls.

That’s right: goat balls. These testicular orbs of revered bleat-meat might cure all your ills, male or female in nature. Such was the reasoning behind Dr. John R. Brinkley’s infamous medical gifts, and such was the foundation of his fortune. If you skim past the wrongful death suits, the federal investigations and the sheer audacity of his backhanded disregard for ethics and common sense, Dr. Brinkley could be seen as the medical luminary of his day.

But we aren’t going to skip those parts. For his lifelong devotion to greed, fraud, and the scrotal strength of the capra aegagrus hircus, we’re going to tell the whole of Dr. Brinkley’s story.

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Shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1907, John Brinkley enrolled at Bennett Medical College in Chicago, a school of questionable repute due to its focus on ‘Eclectic medicine’, which is somewhat like modern herbal / homeopathic medicine, except with less Far Eastern wisdom and a lot more guesswork. He never finished, and he failed to pay his back tuition, which prevented him from transferring to another school. Eventually he did what any enterprising young would-be healer would do: he bought a diploma from a diploma mill in Kansas City. Read more…

Day 976: The Non-Medicinal Medicine

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Along with the oil industry, the communications industry and the elevator ‘Close Door’ button industry, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the least trusted clubhouses in the great corporate tree. “They want to keep us sick.” “They’d rather treat us than cure us.” “I don’t speak English.” These are all impassioned criticisms I heard whilst skulking around my local pharmacy, asking strangers how they felt.

The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that its sheer size has led to corruption and sophisticated flim-flammery, all in search of a quick profit off the desperation and ignorance of the common folk. Also, the industry has pretty much always been corrupt and full of flim-flammery. Only now the bullshit fits neatly into a pill instead of a good ol’ fashioned Wonder-Balm.

We have regulation now – oversight from way on high, which insists that someone actually prove that goat-scrotum extract cures eczema before they can advertise it on a product label. This is why the really fun claims of outlandish hooey can be found in the ‘supplement’ aisle these days. But even our modern snake oil derivatives can’t compare to the creative mangling of truth from the patent medicine days.

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Back in the 1600’s, if you could make friends with someone in the royal camp you might be lucky enough to be issued ‘letters patent’. These were legal papers which allowed you to use the official royal endorsement in any of your advertising. For purveyors of bottled cures, this was a huge deal; it added a legitimacy to whatever freakish claims they might be making for their product. This led to the term ‘patent medicine’, which is misleading in that it’s not likely that any of these products were actually patented. Read more…

Day 966: Which Came First And What’s On Second?

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While the central focus of this project has been devoted to the kind of esoteric trivia that will one day allow me to run the category of ‘Obscure Miscellany’ on Jeopardy, sometimes I like to ask the big questions. The paradoxes. The queries that prompt chortles and didactic witticisms in some company and distant frosted-glass stares with maybe a “woah” among stoned people.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To teach us about existential nothingness, of course. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Only the most fleet-footed of Broadway angels know that one, and they’re keeping their collective yap shut. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s a paradox that has been juggled from philosopher to philosopher, flitting through the fingers of the rhetorically-inclined while attracting the occasional wordy summation from the theological or scientific camps (who are divided by a fuzzier line than even they would admit). This is the stuff of mental meandering, the kind of riddle that the mind loves to lock itself in the bathroom with and do wicked, self-abusing things. It’s an A-or-B multiple choice question with a clear and concise C and D hiding in the margins.

My favorite kind of question.

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The most obvious (and therefore buzz-killing) answer is “the egg”, using the justification that other animals – reptiles, dinosaurs and their cool-blooded ilk – also came from eggs. Let’s toss this smirking solution into the semantic garburator  right away by clarifying that ‘egg’ for the purposes of this riddle refers only to ‘chicken eggs’. We’re trying to untangle a paradox here; no one is suggesting that the chicken was the first creature to poach its zygotes inside a calcite shell. Read more…

Day 946: The Unfillable Stomach Of Charles Domary

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Thankfully for us disciples of feckless fact and impractical information, the human body does not always cater to the limits of logic and science. We can always gawk upon the fortunate – or unfortunate – whose innards form their own rules, leaving their mark in the lore once mined by Ripley and Guinness and Barnum and other protectors of the peculiar. Immersing myself as I have in a mandated one thousand topics across the spectrum of mind-piquing knowledge, I was bound to run across a few of these folks.

Last December I wrote about Tarrare, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who ate his weight in food every day, and made his living on the proto-freak-show circuit, devouring live beasts before gaggles of open-jawed onlookers. The clinical term is polyphagia: an insatiable appetite, or a hunger that can’t be conquered. In Tarrare’s case, one can also account for a critical depravation of good taste, as anyone who eats a live snake before an audience is clearly disgusting as well as edacious.

Right around the time experts were prodding Tarrare with a stick, trying to figure out what made his insides work this way (and perhaps waiting to see if he’d eat the stick), another polyphagious man was making medical headlines. Charles Domery sold his patriotic soul and devoured everything he could find. He was a truly voracious eating machine.

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Charles Domery was born in Benche, Poland (sorry – I couldn’t find a better picture of the place) around 1778. He was one of nine brothers, all of whom – according to Charles – shared the same unquashable appetite. Having lived through feeding one male teenager, I cannot fathom what sort of pre-industrial job the Domery patriarch must have held to afford to feed nine with such an appetite. But if the dinner table was a battleground in Charles’ youth, it showed no ill reflection upon his temperament. Those who knew him said he was a good egg. Read more…

Day 941: Welcoming Our Alien Friends. Or Perhaps Overlords.

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Presently, our only tangible research into the cultural and societal impacts of extra-terrestrial life arriving on Earth seems limited to the fanciful concoctions from the Hollywood daydream machine. Will aliens greet us with a peaceful hand-gesture like they did to that pig-owner guy in the Star Trek movie? Will they fire up the blasters and devastate our cities like that movie where the Fresh Prince teams up with that jazz singer?

Actually, people – and I’m talking about educated people who probably wear business attire to work – have put time and effort into calculating precisely how our society would react to a party of interstellar visitors. Given the unlikelihood of this ever occurring, one could make the argument that the dude who stacks salad plates at your local Sizzler is contributing more to the smooth functioning of society than these educated folks, but I’m not here to make that argument. I’m just the messenger.

When it comes to the purported existence of our little green friends, I find it unfathomably selfish to believe we’re the only slabs of meat who have put together a society in this vast universe. I also believe it likely that someone else has fashioned some sort of tin can (or whatever they have in place of tin) and blasted into space. But to believe they’ll stumble upon us, or even care to say hi if they do? That’s where my credulity glides off the track. Still, it’s fun to daydream.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

For thirty years, the SETI Institute (that’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for you acronym-lovers) has been using science, research and speculation to look into the likelihood and nature of possible ETs who might drop by unannounced. The first part of the discussion centers around how they contact us. Do they send us a coded message like the ones we’ve launched into deep space? Do they take over our computer systems and implant a digital hello on Google’s front page? Or will they do a pop-in, no prior call, completely oblivious to the fact that we already made plans to watch the game with some old friends from college? Read more…