Let’s Take A Closer Look

One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses.  CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.

My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram.  At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays?  Radar?  Microwaves?  Cosmic rays?  Who knew?  We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes.  The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.

With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed.  “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner).  The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist:  this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.

Well, the dream machine is one step closer.  This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine).  It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small!  By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.

(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying).  Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:

Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe.  Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation.  The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch.  So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes.  After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.

Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit.  Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One.  In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her:  no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night.  It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying.  Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was:  A blood clot?  Eustachian tube dysfunction?  Seizure activity?  The Probot said no, no and no.  Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.

 

 

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One Nation, Divisible

Our Chaos President has been at it again; he can’t seem to go 24 hours– or at least a news cycle– without attacking some person or institution in a way that causes dissention and outrage.  That’s his goal, obviously– we’ve seen this pattern when things are going poorly in his government.  The pattern is particularly strong when the GOP healthcare agenda, embodied in the zombie-like Repeal and Replace bills, threatens to collapse yet again.  Divisive declarations and insults, his stock-in-trade, come flying out of the White House (where is his Chief of Staff?) whenever public approval of Trump policies hits a low point– whenever he needs a jolt of energy from his unshakeable “base,” or something to distract everyone else with.

With a firm NO from Senators McCain and Paul, and Sen. Collins leaning against it (but bribes to Maine and Alaska apparently are still negotiable), and even Sen. Cruz saying he’s not convinced about the bill, the rushed vote desired by the GOP looks likely to be another embarrassing defeat for the party.  Meanwhile, the usual crises– you know the ones:  natural disasters, climate change, opioid addiction, threats of terrorism and nuclear war, etc.– continue to swirl about, without a “win” in sight.

What better time, then, for POTUS to condemn NFL players– especially the one who started it all, Colin Kaepernick– for taking a knee during the national anthem?  There’s no mention, of course, that this is a peaceful protest against racial inequality and police brutality toward African-Americans.  Ignoring history as usual (half a century ago, you recall, a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama met with a more violent reaction, but the attitude hasn’t changed), taking a knee is seen purely as an act of disrespect for “our” nation that should be punished, period.  And Charlottesville proved that the more divisive Trump’s statements, the more successful the diversion.  The place and the timing (at a rally in Alabama) was cynical but perfect:  1-2 days before NFL’s football Sunday, maximizing the predictable response from players.  The next day, over 250 athletes, trainers and team owners joined together in an impressive, moving show of solidarity.

It reminded me of the 1960 movie “Spartacus,” in which a Roman general demands that the defeated slave rebels turn over their leader.  Give me Spartacus, the general says, and I will let everyone else go.  One by one– beginning with Kirk Douglas himself– the rebels declare, “I am Spartacus,” resulting in the crucifixion of all.  Fortunately, incursions on Constitutional rights under this Administration have not yet involved capital punishment!

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World Nation, the second in the trilogy, which will be published in the coming month:

“That is impressive, Martin:  the assassination of Ambassador Mauer, the co-ordination of demonstrations and sabotage, the recent bombing at City Hall.  Your Gang of Three has certainly been a busy group.”

“Thank you!  I appreciate that, truly,”  Martin blushed, all of a sudden feeling quite jovial.  “Ha!  We do make an excellent team, even if I say so myself!  It’s like that old saying:  ‘Strength in numbers,’ am I right?”

At the door there came a soft knocking sound, unsure.  The man frowned at the interruption, crossed the room in three strides, and opened the door just wide enough for Martin to see two guards and a badly bloodied prisoner standing in the corridor.  After a brief exchange of agitated murmurs and a quick glance in the direction of the doctor, the man swung his full attention back to Martin, who was awaiting him with bated breath.

Quite typically, the Superintendent did not miss a beat.  “‘Strength in numbers,’ you said?  No, that’s not quite right, Martin,” Khalmed Salman corrected him:  “What we say around these parts is ‘divided, they fall.’”

 

 

Welcome to Our Planet

Eight months ago, coincident with our Chaos President’s dark and threatening inauguration speech about “American carnage” (see my previous post, Inauguration Blues), six people entered an isolated environment on the Big Island of Hawaii, a NASA-run simulation of life on Mars.  Amazingly, their eight months separated from the world have passed, and yesterday the four men and two women emerged to discover that Donald Trump is still the Chaos President, still denying climate science, still unable to build the Great Wall of Mexico.  They will find the world unsubtly and unsettlingly different, however:  while they were gone, the US has withdrawn from TPP and the Paris Agreement, circling its wagons and surrendering its leadership position worldwide; multiple hurricanes, boosted by warm ocean waters and rising sea levels, have laid waste to the Caribbean and parts of Texas and Florida; DACA has been rescinded, exposing 800,000 young people while 11 million undocumented immigrants continue to live in fear; North Korea has launched missiles over Japan and tested a hydrogen bomb; the President has blustered at the United Nations that we may have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea; he has also doubled down on his statement that neo-Nazi white supremacists and those protesting against them are equally to blame for violence; a parade of White House officials have departed in disgrace; a special prosecutor is closing in on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia to influence the election; the GOP is cynically trying for the fifth (or is it the sixth) time to bring their cruel and destructive healthcare agenda back from the dead (see my previous posts Vive le Healthcare and Kill Bill 3)– Trump wants this bill, which would result in millions losing healthcare coverage, passed by next week, before the Congressional Budget Office and other expert groups can provide any analysis of its dire consequences.

In Inauguration Blues, I advised the six Martians-in-training, when they finally came out of isolation, not to utter the classic line, “Take us to your leader.”  But I’ve changed my mind; they should absolutely see our Chaos President, if only to demand of him, “What’s happening to our world?  Why are you doing this?”

Denial and Detachment

This isn’t a doomsday blog, warning of some great approaching apocalypse.  But there is a pervasive sense of disaster in the air, as pointed out recently in the NY Times:  deadly hurricanes all in a row, record temperatures and numerous wildfires out of control in the West, a huge earthquake in Mexico killing dozens.  I would add the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, refugees from war denied entrance to some European nations, and the testing of a hydrogen bomb by North Korea.  Our Chaos President made some appropriate noises after Hurricane Harvey, but I’m not sure those wading through the flooded ruins of their homes got any relief from his saying the ground team was doing a great job; it was a beautiful thing to see; or “Have a good time!”  Political gain is clearly his first priority, not true concern for Houston’s storm victims.  What about the warming waters of the Caribbean boosting the strength of the hurricane?  Rising sea levels increasing the danger of the storm surge?  Prolonged droughts and heat waves predicted by climate science?  I’m afraid climate change deniers, including the President’s “base” in Florida and Texas, remain unwilling to at least consider the scientific evidence or the possibility of a connection–  even while standing knee-deep in its consequences.

The more evidence piles up, the more desperately they’ll cling to their denial:  cognitive dissonance is an amazing thing.  Add to that a sense of detachment and unreality, these calamities unfolding at a distance as though we’re looking at a movie or video game.  No matter how calamitous, we want to believe- and at some level do believe- that everything will go back to normal when it’s ended.  Game over?  Just reset.

In the case of North Korea’s hydrogen bomb, the President is playing a game of chicken.  His dismissal of science and ignorance of history (again, denial and detachment) does not increase our confidence that he knows what’s truly at stake.  Nuclear fusion, as in a hydrogen bomb, releases a thousand times the energy of fission, as in an atom bomb (physicists please chime in), and Kim’s missiles can now reach San Francisco.  So far, discussion of this fact has seemed rather abstract, lacking the immediacy that one might expect.

No, this is not a doomsday blog.  It was created to support my science fiction novel, Fourth World, and not to declare that the End Is Near.  But Fourth World does have a dystopian view of the future.  Here’s an excerpt:

They picked their way carefully up the stairway to the remnants of Market Street.  There was no throughway; large sections of collapsed buildings lay on their sides, the spaces in between them clogged with jagged chunks of concrete, twisted metal beams, and shapeless, glassy masses of stone/aluminum/steel/people/plastic/sand fused together for eternity.  The adjacent hillsides all looked the same; not a single street had escaped the crush of the giant falling dominoes.

For a long moment, Benn and Lora stood in silent awe at this death-mask of a city.  The heat of battle must have been incredibly intense, with temperatures well over a thousand degrees…  He could almost smell the explosive combustion of oil, bones, flesh, starch, sulfur:  any substance whose molecules could combine with oxygen had turned incendiary…  Because of global warming and subsequent flooding, a seawall had been erected long before the war, to prevent the rising water level from claiming prime bay-front real estate.  Sections of this seawall had been severely damaged, forcing them to detour around wide flooded areas.  At one point, they had to turn westward to higher ground, where charred stumps of former skyscrapers huddled like an encampment of the homeless.  Only one building had not been completely leveled; judging by the sloped angles of its four corners, discernible as they got closer, Benn guessed that the building had originally been shaped like a four-sided pyramid, and still reached about one-third of its original height.  Here they traversed a small, serene forest of redwood trees which had miraculously survived the conflagration… .

 

 

Mars or Bust II

It’s really happening.  Among Earthbound, upward-gazing humans, there has always been a deep-seated fascination with outer space; witness the huge popular reaction to the recent solar eclipse.  But efforts by SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and other commercial companies to fly folks into low Earth orbit in conjunction with NASA signal an acceleration of that interest, or what has been called a “new space race.”  When rocket factories, cargo missions, passenger flights and space exploration open up “a whole new world of business,” you know that momentum will build.  According to a NASA director, a manned mission to Mars is “the pinnacle of Mt. Everest” at this point– but once Everest has been scaled, what will keep the momentum going?

In my science fiction novel Fourth World, NASA’s Tharsis Colony on Mars is left stranded when a great war results in the formation of one world government (the PWE) and the elimination of NASA.  Here’s an excerpt:

“At other times, Mr. Walker suggested that the colony’s downfall actually preceded the PWE, that the slow death- he termed it the “apoptosis”- of Tharsis Colony was encoded in its DNA at the very moment it was conceived.  To explain this apoptosis, Mr. Walker would use his guiding principle:  follow the water.  The second manned mission to Mars, launched in 2049 (thus nicknamed “The New Forty-Niners”) discovered significant quantities of liquid underground water, which had only to be mined in order to allow large-scale colonization. Of course, water was necessary for supporting life, but beyond that, water was found in perchlorates, hydrated salts which could be converted to solid rocket fuel (this was before the harnessing of nuclear fusion, Mr. Walker reminded them).  The seminal discovery of water, he said, sweeping both arms dramatically to his left, then to his right, essentially divided the history of humanity on Mars into the pre- and post-Forty-Niner eras.”

Regarding the former, Mr. Walker reviews for his second-grade class the decades-long history of Mars exploration:

“… Many other missions contributing to the ultimate colonization of Mars, such as Mariner, Pathfinder, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity and Spirit, were never forgotten by history.

Also never forgotten:  the fact that the United States agency NASA had been responsible for all of these missions.  Sure, Mr. Walker allowed, successful probes were launched by Russia, Europe, China, India, Brazil, New Zealand, and even private enterprises.  But only the United States had the means to access the water- to monopolize this most vital of natural resources- and establish a full-fledged colony.  Tharsis was a triumph for the United States, but to the rest of the world, it was only the latest example of American empire-building and colonialism.”

But merely finding the means to colonize Mars doesn’t explain the need to colonize, does it?  There have to be assets to exploit once you get there (and in Fourth World, it turns out, there are valuable resources to discover).  Absent such assets, would escaping Earth justify the trouble and cost of such a long journey?  Despite Hurricane Harvey’s devastating effect on Texas and the startling rise in the number of 500-year floods in just the past decade, climate-change deniers in Congress and the White House still determine US policy.  It seems we will continue to prop up the coal industry until all the coal mines are under floodwaters.  In the original Mars or Bust (which appeared on this blog January 7th, while I was still in post-election shock), I coined a name for the manned SpaceX mission to Mars:  Elon’s Ark.  Let’s hope commercial space flight literally takes off:  when climate change can no longer be reversed, we’re going to need a lot more than one Ark!

 

Bully Pulpit II

Well, that didn’t last long (see my earlier post, Silence from the Bully Pulpit), did it?  If only our Chaos President had just played golf and not made it a working vacation.  While away from the White House, not only did Trump fail to give us all a break from his incessant tweeting, he managed to push us to the brink of nuclear war with a threat of “fire and fury.”  He further divided the nation after the Charlottesville murder by drawing a false equivalence between KKK/Neo-Nazis and anti-bigotry protestors, adding that there was blame- as well as “very fine people”- on both sides (being careful to point out, however, than only one side, the white supremacists, had a permit).  Then he reversed himself – not once, but twice, giving everyone a severe case of political whiplash- finally resorting to defending Confederate symbols as “beautiful statues and monuments,” treasures of culture and history on a level with statues of Washington and Jefferson.  Off Twitter, Trump gave a combative press conference in which he doubled-down on overt signals (I have a feeling we’re not using dog-whistles anymore, Toto) of support and solidarity to white supremacists.  On Twitter he blasted CEOs for abandoning his business councils.  And now he has decided to grind up and extrude Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon from his inner circle- along with Scaramucci, Priebus, Spicer, Walsh and Flynn, just another product of the White House Sausage Factory.

What continues to roil the public (now that the prospect of being nuked by North Korea seems to be receding) is Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, which started with the plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.  As the greatest general of the Confederacy- which sought to destroy the United States, at least partly in order to preserve slavery- Lee was a piece of history and culture that should be memorialized in the form of a “beautiful statue,” wasn’t he?  What if, after World War II, Germany had erected statues of Hitler, Himmler, and Eichmann?  Oh, that’s different, they weren’t the greatest generals of the Third Reich?  How about a statue of Rommel, then:  riding a tank on Unter den Linden Strasse?

Very funny cartoon from Tom Toles in the Washington Post today:  Trump pointing at a map of Europe 1944; a large swastika over Germany, and bold black arrows indicating the Allies closing in from all sides.  Trump says, “Sure, you had some Nazis on one side, but you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”

Trump’s Attorney General Sessions and many others have called the murder (a car slammed into a crowd by a Neo-Nazi) in Charlottesville an act of terrorism.  After the terrible tragedy yesterday in Barcelona (another motor vehicle driven into a crowd), for which ISIS claimed responsibility, Trump tweeted his opposition to terrorism.  But I was just waiting for him to point out that, in all fairness, there was plenty of blame to spread around…  I know, that would be ridiculous- but given the President’s distorted interpretations and chaotic maneuverings of the past week, nothing lies beyond the imagination!

Completely as an aside:  I wonder what’s taking so long with Robert Mueller’s investigation?

 

To Join This Couple

If only it were possible to love without injury- fidelity isn’t enough:  I had been faithful… and yet I had injured her.  The hurt is in the act of possession:  we are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation.”

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

 

Proximity to several weddings and anniversaries has got me thinking not only about hope and wonderful relationships, but also- this may seem a bit neurotic- about the impossibility of attaining the ideal:  complete mutual understanding.  Ideal goals, almost by definition, are impossible to reach- and yet (one hopes) we strive on, grinding the rough corners, losing the old baggage, constantly adjusting our attitudes toward one another and admonishing ourselves to be better people.  In other words, if we are “too small in mind and body,” we need to keep growing!  If only there were an easier way; if only we had chimeric genes or the drug-induced ability to escape our limited dimensions and merge together, like Benn and Lora in Fourth World, both projecting their auras in an out-of-body experience:

“HUH!” was all Benn could manage as their two auras met.  It was not so much a physical joining of bodies- not the sensation he had hoped for, alas- but more like a merging of two liquids.  Lora feels like oil, the odd thought came to him: he pictured a large drop of oil falling into a pool of water.  As it splashed, the strong natural repulsion between auras took immediate effect:  the drop embodying Lora displaced a smaller drop- a portion of Benn’s aura- which rose straight upward.  Then the Benn-drop fell back in and splashed up an even smaller droplet- Lora again- which in turn fell, and so on, until inevitably the last micro-sphere of Lora was captured by Benn’s surface tension and could no longer escape.  As separate liquids, the two of them had different viscosities:  Benn flowed easily, whereas Lora’s character was thicker, more unctuous.  Their collision caused long, finger-like projections of Lora to penetrate into Benn’s aura, causing it to blush red before snapping back to attention.

He recognized her myriad layers, those melodic strains, the steady internal rhythm he had so admired.  With their thoughts intermingled, mutual understanding arrived instantaneously, and no longer required the cumbersome verbal exchange of ideas expressed ploddingly one at a time, over periods measurable on a stopwatch.”

If only we could do that!  But in the sequel, Fourth World Nation, Benn wrestles with the ups and downs of sharing auras:

“Benn thought long and hard before giving his answer.  Even though she had quickly apologized and even made a joke about it, Lora had meant what she said about the survival of their relationship.  Admittedly, he often worried about misconstruing her intentions, being insensitive, and appearing apathetic when he really did care; why would she not have her own set of worries about appearing moody, contentious, or needy when she was anything but?  Only when their auras fused together was there instantaneous and true knowledge of one another.  Who wouldn’t want a relationship completely free of misunderstandings, mistrust, manipulation, projection, guilt, dishonesty or domination?  No more mumbling, lapses of attention, slips of the tongue or difficulty hearing, either!  What could be better?”

Unlike Benn and Lora, the rest of us remain in separate, finite minds and bodies.  It’s as though we are talking through a wall, in different languages, our voices muffled and disguised.  Of course we’ll never achieve complete understanding that way, so we need to keep growing, grinding, adjusting.  But come to think of it, this continual striving on our parts reflects an untiring commitment to our relationships, doesn’t it?  We may not hear each other perfectly well, but that untiring commitment, I think, is at least one ideal we can attain.