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Nuns!

From 1967 to 1995, Creighton University conducted a study which became “one of the longest-running, continually supported projects in the history of the National Institutes of Health“. The test subjects were all nuns “representing six mother houses and all between the ages of 35 and 45 when they started” and took part in a study that “literally wrote the book on the operation of the calcium economy in mid-life women”.

For the study, the nuns would eat the same foods in exactly the same portions every day for eight days. The diets were designed to match, within 5 percent, their usual food intake in terms of calories, protein, calcium and phosphorus. Creighton researchers then meticulously gathered data to identify factors that influenced how the women’s bodies absorbed calcium, utilized it and excreted it.

Among the findings resulting from the Creighton research: Healthy adult women in midlife require 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day; and calcium absorption is influenced by such factors as body size, vitamin D, estrogen levels, age, race, calcium source and other nutrient interactions.

Though the study officially ended in 1995, the nuns “now in their 70s and 80s – continue coming to Creighton for calcium absorption measurements and bone-density scans.”

The findings have greatly increased science’s understanding in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.

Other studies involving nuns have been well documented. In 1986, David Snowdon, Ph.D. spearheaded a pilot program to investigate brain diseases in the elderly to “determine the causes and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, other brain diseases, and the mental and physical disability associated with old age”.

Each of the 678 participants in the Nun Study agreed to participate in annual assessments of their cognitive and physical function, medical exams, blood drawing for genetic and nutritional studies, and brain donation at death for neuropathologic studies. The Nun Study represents the largest brain donor population in the world. In addition, the sisters have given investigators full access to their convent and medical records.

Since many Alzheimer’s patients are unable to provide accurate information regarding their past, due to the pronounced memory loss associated with the disease, these convent records provide an invaluable tool to study the long term health factors in each patient.

All in all, studies such as these, and others, allow scientists to further our medical understanding in the hopes of increasing the quality of life for all of us. Too often we hear about the divisions between science and faith, but there are probably many, many more stories about the two disciplines working together for a greater good.

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Artists impression of Gliese 581 C

50% bigger and about 5 times as massive as our own earth, a new planet has been discovered within the “Goldilocks” zone of the star Gliese 581. The planet is a little over 20 light years away from our own solar system and given its “prime” orbital distance from the parent star, this new planet (Gliese 581 C) may have liquid water. Since liquid water is believed to be a key ingredient in life, Gliese 581 C has quickly become the latest and greatest candidate for harboring life off of the earth.

Should this planet have the ability to support life, scientists, free thinkers, and otherwise sane individuals will begin the trans-solar migration immediately. Old earth will be left behind to the religious fundamentalists, war mongers, politicians and bureaucrats. Scientists believe old earth will die out quickly once all rational life leaves its shores though some of the migrating scientists may experience a brief yet painful period of severe withdrawal due to the lack of red tape which previously restricted their scientific research back on old earth.

Also, the new earth will most likely have a much stronger gravitational pull than that of old earth so humans will need to adapt to weighing nearly five times as much as they currently do. However, it is believed the oppressive weight of extremism and religion is far greater than any gravitational force on Gliese 581 C so everyone should get over it pretty quickly.

Huichol Indians

When the white man first arrived in the America’s he brought with him the light of God. That light was usually reflected off the end of a sword or musket barrel and was probably the last thing millions of Native Americans saw before they were murdered. Today, many hundreds of years later, the white man is still bringing light to the indigenous peoples of the continent but in a much different and far more useful form.

An organization known as the Portable Light Project has been visiting the Huichol Indians (pronounced we-chill) of west central Mexico in an attempt to “address the need for affordable electrical lighting that would require no fixed installations”. The Huichol live high in the Sierra Madre’s which is a few days journey by foot from the nearest city and they have no access to Mexico’s power grid. The Portable Light Project devised a method of supplying the Indians with solar rechargeable LED’s powerful enough to illuminate an entire room. Since many of the Huichol earn a living by making and selling crafts, these small but brilliant light sources allow them to sew and paint well into the night and it also allows the children a few more hours to do their homework.

The overall goal of the Portable Light Project is to “optimize existing semi-conductor technologies and create new applications to serve the large number of people—more than 2 billion—who do not have access to electric light or power.” So far about 50 solar packs, which the Huichol carry on their backs during the day, have been given out and the project plans to distribute many more in the future. Should the idea catch on the project hopes to bring this technology to many more people around the globe who have no access to electricity.

One of the community leaders of the Huichol’s stated that the LED’s are plenty enough light for them. They do not want power lines running into their villages for fear that commercial factories would soon follow and ruin their culture. This is probably a sentiment shared by many native peoples around the world who wish to benefit from modern technology but have no desire for the industrialized world to encroach any further upon their way of life.

(Listen to more of this story which was broadcast April 4, 2007 on the BBC’s “The World” radio program.)

Sergey Prokudin-GorskyThe years 1905 thru 1917 were turbulent at best in Russia. In 1905 the first Russian Revolution took place due to the cumulation of dissatisfaction with the rate of reform under the Romanov dynasty. Though the revolution did speed up some reforms it would not be enough.

By 1917 the Bolshevik party would again make their claim to the empire and this time they succeeded in overthrowing the royal dynasty in one of the bloodiest and costliest revolutions in human history.

During these middle years most of Europe was thrown into turmoil. With the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand combined with the labyrinthine alliances of Eastern and Western Europe and an ever growing arms race most of the continent broke out into bloody conflict. New technologies such as the machine gun, the tank and the airplane were first being demonstrated along the western front in France and Germany and millions lost their lives due to war and disease. The old world was fading into the fog of history and the 20th century was born.

During this era a man named Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to document the vast Russian Empire. Because of his fame from photographing Leo Tolstoy and the connections he had within the royal family he was allowed unparalleled access to parts of Russia where travel was typically forbidden. Utilizing a railroad car equipped with a darkroom and a new photographic technique which produced high quality color images, Prokudin-Gorsky managed to create a voluminous photographic record of this middle era of human history.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s technique was unique even among modern 21st century photographers. Though no surviving examples of his camera remains his process is well understood and is familiar to anyone with even a rudiment knowledge of color theory and digital image processing. By taking a rapid series of 3 images (one red, one green and one blue) onto glass plates he could combine the images and display them onto a screen in full color. Since the plates were large the final images are of incredible detail and clarity and they even rival the quality of most modern digital cameras.

Prokudin-Gorsky captured thousands of images of which nearly all have survived. Many of the plates are in very good condition and in 2004 the Library of Congress commissioned many of these plates to be digitally enhanced to produce a final high quality image.

Each plate represents a single color (red, green and blue) which was taken in rapid succession with the camera.A single plate in 1 color.All three plates are combined to complete the color image.Final digitized image created by the Library of Congress.

This photographic record of the people and places of the Russian Empire during the formative years of modern civilization are some of the most important surviving documents concerning human history. Even more amazing is that their presentation in color bridges the gap of history and places us the viewer in a much more intimate context with the subjects in the photos. Unlike the vast majority of old images which are black and white, sepia toned or faded, here we are given a striking account of a time nearly 100 years ago that appears to have been recorded just yesterday. In this context we can better empathize with the subjects at hand and thus we are allowed access to a time and place that would otherwise feel distant and irrelevant to our modern lives.

History is our greatest teacher but too often we fail to feel it’s importance in our own lives. Often we think of the past as a series of events which are either not relevant to us or could not possibly occur ever again. Unfortunately many of the events that took place during the early part of the 20th century repeated themselves on an even greater scale only 20 years later. Today we still feel the effects of this era yet because of our convenient lifestyles we are once more becoming complacent and are putting ourselves at risk to repeat the mistakes of the past.

 

 

I came across an interesting post that got me thinking about the implications of science.

c. 1767-68

The above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) and is titled “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”. Here, Wright has captured a moment in history where enlightened civilization is beginning to understand how the natural universe works and how we can manipulate it to our own ends. Sir Isaac Newton (and others), who lived during the earlier part of the 18th century heralded in this new age of discovery and scientific research. Man’s relationship with nature was beginning to move away from that which could not be explained to that which will soon be understood and Wright’s painting gives us a glimpse into the birth of this new age.

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpA hundred years previously the experiment in this painting may have seemed like magic (or worse, devilry) so the artist has tempered this demonstration with two clever juxtapositions. First, and most obvious, is the young girl who is upset that the bird has become the focus of a scientific demonstration. What is interesting is that hers’ is the only face we do not see clearly, she hides her tears with her hands. Is the artist telling us that science outweighs emotional attachments and that they should be hidden away shamefully? Or is Wright demonstrating the devastating loss this poor girl must feel by not showing her face to force us to empathize with her grief and thus lead us to believe we should find science dispassionate and ugly?

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpNow observe the young boy at the far right of the painting. He is the only figure not part of the circle, your eye must seek him out at the edge of the composition. Notice that outside the window he is standing next to the only natural light source in the painting – the moon. For all of human history man could only see at night by the light of the moon; fear and evil lurked in the darkness of a moonless night. In the enlightened age, man had overcome this obstacle and his evenings could now be spent reading by candlelight or entertaining guests with a scientific demonstration.

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpThe boy is also one of only two figures actually looking at the viewer; the old man carrying out the experiment is the other. The old man holds the fate of the bird in his hands. He is taller than any other figure in the circle and he seems to have an expression similar to that of a professor giving an instruction we must all understand. The young boy, on the other hand, holds the draw string to close the curtain, thus attempting to block the moon (a metaphor for the superstitious past) and is looking at us expectantly as if he is waiting to see if we will take the side of science and progress (the old man), or that of passion (the young girl). A choice must be made by the viewer because the artist has only presented the problem.

At stake in the painting is but a child’s bird and though I too would be as upset as the girl if someone did the same experiment on my dog, science has carried out far more upsetting observations which one could say rivals that of the crusades.

 

When the scientists at Los Alamos were ready to test the first nuclear device they actually took bets on the chances that the splitting of the atom would set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire. Though we now know that such an event is impossible, at the time there were serious concerns about that very possibility and yet the experiment was carried out anyway. For the sake of winning World War II, the US government was willing to put the fate of every living creature on this planet at grave risk.

A shoe-fitting fluoroscope

From the 1930’s to 1950’s a device known as the shoe-fitting fluoroscope could be found in many shoe stores. Customers could determine their exact shoe size by looking into the device and actually see the bone structure of their feet. The device emitted x-rays directly into people’s feet at rem rates hundreds of times higher than that allowed for nuclear power plant workers for an entire year! At the time there were scientists who had an idea of how harmful radiation could be but when faced with the devastation in Japan and the horrible side effects caused by radiation, scientists were able to study these effects on the mass population.

The shadow was all that remained of this Japanese victimRadiation burn victimThe initial victims of the nuclear age probably never knew what happened because they were vaporized instantly in a light so bright and hot all that remained of them were their shadows burnt onto walls. Those who survived suffered a much crueler fate. “For no apparent reason” the survivors “health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And then bleeding began from the ears, nose and mouth”. Doctors “gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died”.

Other experiments were being carried out during the middle of the 20th century that were just as cruel. In Germany a man named Eduard Pernkopf was working on his “Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy“, an atlas detailing human anatomy to a degree not seen since the similar works of Leonardo da Vinci. Though Pernkopf’s work was seen as a landmark for human biology, “speculation and indirect evidence have led to the conclusion that Pernkopf used the murdered bodies of men, women, and children from the Holocaust for his atlas of anatomy.” True, his work provided doctors with an invaluable tool with which to study the human body (and possibly help cure patients in the long run) but at what cost to those who died like lab rats?

There are countless other examples.

So is science, for lack of a better word, better than religion? Do the dispassionate observations of the scientist achieve a morality more acceptable than that of an Islamic suicide bomber? History is filled with rational, scientific minded persons who have lobbied for their discoveries to be utilized in an ethical manner. Einstein was asked to take part in the Manhattan Project and though he refused for moral reasons, he was intrigued by the research because it lay at the heart of his own interests in science. Einstein even believed America should harness the atom because he was afraid Germany might be doing so as well. Leonardo da Vinci made good money designing weapons of war for his own government. That list too goes on and on.

Religion, in theory anyway, attempts to see the universe through the lens of morality. Gods are invented to make sure people are being ethical even when nobody else is looking. Science, on the other hand is interested mainly in observation. The ethical dilemmas that arise because of those observations are dealt with later. Each individual scientist must consider his or her own morality against their ambitions. Ironically, it is often the scientist who is naive and allows people with strong religious tendencies to corrupt their work for war and murder but this is not always the case. The scientists at Los Alamos may have been more interested in discovering the mysteries of the atom then making bombs, but at the end of the day they still knew they were making bombs.

In closing, science is not free of the terrors that have been usually attributed to religion. Science may help us gain a keener insight into the actual workings of the universe, but science has done little to advance the human species enough to know how to use that information responsibly. Personally I do side with rational, scientific thinking but I also understand that knowledge without ethics and morality is dangerous and does not outweigh the possible benefits that may arise from that knowledge. Science is not without blame and scientists should hold science to the same critical standards that religious leaders should point at their own beliefs.

The 'eyeball of an A-bomb victim who got an atomic bomb cataract. There is opacity near the center of the eyeball.'