The Dead Planet

Ethan Siegel calls Mars “the obvious first step in our journey to the stars” and “part of our dreams for reaching out into the Universe.” Last year thousands of people applied to join Mars One, a proposed colonization effort slash reality show that plans to put humans on the red planet in 2023. But unless Mars One wants to achieve ratings by broadcasting the death of its crew, it may want to cool its jets. Ethan says that without some heretofore unknown, top secret-technology, there’s no hope for safely landing a capsule-full of “sensitive meatbags” (aka bachelors 1 through 3) on the surface. Launching from Earth is not likely to be a problem, nor traveling for nine months to the second-nearest planet in the solar system. But since Mars lacks a robust atmosphere, there’s very little drag to help decelerate a landing craft in a survivable manner. If humanity is serious about maximizing its reach in time and space, we might focus on sustaining our life on Earth first, and stranding photogenic pilgrims on a dead planet later.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to investigate the mysterious lump that turned up under Opportunity’s nose on January 8th.  Many commentators likened the object to a jelly doughnut, while Stephen Colbert dealt a blow to interplanetary peace by taking a bite out of an irresistible Martian ambassador.  Although NASA explains that it’s a rock, most likely kicked up by the rover’s maneuvering, PZ Myers reports that a chronic discoverer of life on Mars has declared it to be a fungus and legally impelled NASA to investigate further.  But NASA already knows there’s a lot of science to be done; they say we could be seeing the underside of a rock that hasn’t been exposed to the atmosphere for billions of years.  Opportunity also made headlines last week with evidence of flowing water and hospitable conditions in Mars’ distant past.  So although Mars may be dead, and a dead-end for human settlers, there’s still a strong possibility that it was once alive.


Hot Winter Days

The anti-scientific M.O. of some political conservatives was in full swing during the ‘polar vortex,’ as frigid weather brought south from the Arctic led many commentators to scoff, “look how cold it is, can you believe anyone thinks the Earth is getting warmer?” Coby Beck adds some perspective from climate historian Christopher C. Burt on A Few Things Ill-Considered, writing “cold snaps like this past week’s used to occur every couple of years in the 1800′s,” and more like every 5-10 years in the 1900’s. Meanwhile the last time it got so cold in the U.S. was twenty years ago. Coby says “what is remarkable is that this level of cold has become remarkable”—because it used to be commonplace. As the planet gets warmer, regional weather, unlike average global temperature, remains highly variable. Coby concludes, “this is just what scientists refer to as ‘winter.'”  Or what they used to, anyway.

Greg Laden offers a complementary interpretation, saying the polar vortex is the result of a jet stream increasingly unsettled by the warming of the Arctic. Per the theory of “weather whiplash,” extreme temperatures might become more common as the energized jet stream contorts Arctic air. While the eastern U.S. was suffering bitter cold, northern Europe enjoyed unseasonal warmth; there’s only so much Arctic air to go around.  Which means the northern hemisphere can look forward to hot winter days as surely as very cold ones.  The polar vortex was entirely consistent with global warming, and those who claimed otherwise wore their disingenuity on their sleeves.

Horror Vacui

Aristotle thought that there could be no lasting void in the natural order, that any emptiness would be instantaneously filled. Of course Aristotle was full of batty ideas. But this one came to be rephrased by philosophers and Vulcans alike as “nature abhors a vacuum,” enduring as a powerful metaphor if not a precisely factual truth. In terms of critical thinking, scientists too abhor a vacuum, and are usually eager to fill in the blanks. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers criticizes a review of long-established brain anatomy, freshened with primary colors and a hypothesis that makes no sense. Describing the original purpose of an apparently useless neuron, PZ writes “It’s like sending a kite string across a chasm, then using the string to pull a rope across, and then using the rope to pull a cable across, and pretty soon you’ve got a bridge.” On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse glimpses the formlessness underlying the arguments of Intelligent Design proponents, saying “there is ultimately nothing more to their argument than the claim that at some point in natural history, an unnamed intelligent designer did something.” Can we be a little more specific, please?

The Time I Broke My Neck

This is a story with a happy ending, or at least a happy middle, because it isn’t over yet. Right after it began I found myself floating face down in the water, drifting very slowly with the current, trying to stand but hardly able to move my legs. Trying to swim, but unable to move my arms. One Mississippi two Mississippi three Mississippi four. I waited for my dad, standing a few feet away, to notice something was wrong. But as a younger person I had often played dead in the water, daring someone to be alarmed. Finally I turned my head to the side, my lips above the surface for a split-second, and said “Help.” A little less air in my lungs. But he had heard.

That was my first piece of luck, breaking my neck in front of two dozen people. I had been diving all up and down the river, increasingly emboldened, exhilarated, usually alone, and free. I was 26, an aging indoor child, never once a daredevil, for the first time pushing my physical limits. I had never considered the possibility of what might go wrong. That year the river was highest in memory, with deep pools of spring water and snowmelt carved into the granite, each one like the promise of a new world. But like car accidents that most often happen within a few miles of home, I crashed at the most familiar place on the creek. We call it First Pool. It’s just down the trail from the cabin my great-grandparents built, after first hiking in on snowshoes, to find the one they had purchased utterly flattened beneath the winter snow.

Lying half out of the water, a circle of faces lining my view of the sky, I just wanted to go home and sleep it off. Shit, I thought, this might take a few days to recover from. My arms and hands hurt a lot, but my legs felt more or less ok. There was no loss of sensation or paralysis, and no pain in my neck. I did not suspect the true nature of my injury. Thankfully I was surrounded by more sensible people. They called an ambulance and alerted the campground host, who happened to be checking in an EMT. This guy put a collar on my neck and said it might be just a “stinger.” Lea kept asking me questions like “if you could have any car in the world, what would it be,” worried that I might have a concussion. The osprey flew by overhead, surveying. The ambulance arrived in only 15 minutes and took me on a 45 minute ride downhill. A Samurai, I had told her.

At the hospital they X-rayed my devastated hands—and my neck, just to be safe (or so I thought). But when the films were developed they showed my hands were whole, and my fifth cervical vertebrae had burst, compressing and bruising my spinal cord. The disc was now somewhat wedge-shaped, compressed towards the front. Later imaging showed that my spinal canal is bigger than average, which may have contributed to the fact that I was not wholly or partially paralyzed by diving into a sandbar. The nerves that branch out from C5 go to the hands, which is why my hands felt so damaged and could hardly move.

Before the X-rays came back the doctor wanted to start intravenous steroids, which serve to lessen swelling and reduce the extent of a spinal cord injury. I refused the IV, invoking some quasi-religious tenet about not spilling blood. The doctor was pissed, and asked if I could see things that others do not. I had to think a few seconds before I answered “no,” only because it was the truth. Later, after the X-rays convinced me I needed a needle in my arm, I was given the choice between surgical replacement of the crushed vertebrae with titanium—or a halo, which would immobilize my head for three months and allow the bone to heal in place. Never choose to spill blood. I picked the halo.

It was a hard time, being 6’4″ with a carbon fiber circlet bolted to my skull, supported by four poles that attached to a sheepskin vest. I could only sleep on my back, and I couldn’t shower. After the first few days I stood up and shuffled across my half of the hospital room. My next accomplishment was to wipe my ass. Then I was gingerly walking, waving to people. I signed legal documents with the scrawl of a first grader. I took Vicodin before going to sleep and slipped into hours of lucid dreams. When the lucidity dissipated I would find myself back at the river, or some other river, more fantastic somehow than the real thing. Diving in but unable to get back to the surface. Then discovering I could breathe underwater.

The halo, in its own way, injured me as much as the fracture, leaving not only scars but a stiff, atrophied neck. Almost three years later, my musculature and range of motion are still recovering. I’m approaching 100%, and I no longer worry constantly about being vulnerable, about having an Achilles’ heel somewhere to the back of my jaw. The bruised feelings in my hands have waned, and so too the bottles of painkillers. I learned that the body is recreated in the brain, and in every step of its connection thereto. If I lie too long on my back my pinkies still go numb, and I fumble and break dishes more often than before.

But I could have been paraplegic, quadriplegic, or simply drowned. I am extremely lucky to still have no regrets. If you find yourself with a wonderful working body, remember that it only takes once to disable it forever.