Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thankful Day #20

Thankful Day #20: I'm thankful for oxytocin. This pituitary hormone keeps civilization together. It is best-known for its role in labor, delivery and breastfeeding; however, it also plays a large role in pair-bonding (secreted during orgasm, for example), parent-child bonding (even fathers have a surge of it when (allegedly) their baby is born), and probably in less-intense interpersonal relationships. Abnormal oxytocin production has been linked to sociopathy, narcissism and general manipulativeness (i.e., assholism).

Thankful Day #19

Thankful Day #19: I am thankful for stereopsis. First described by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, this is the perception of depth resulting from two slightly different images from distant objects being projected on our two retinae. It is not identical to the colloquial sense of "depth perception," however, since one-eyed people (yes, you, Cyclops) still have many cues for relative distance (e.g., overlap, size, light diffusion).

Thankful Day #18

Thankful Day #18: I am thankful for my microbiome--the bacteria that live in and on me, making life possible. In my colon alone, there are 100000000000 bacteria per cubic centimeter, and these little friends comprise 90% of my stool mass. They break down indigestibles, they keep pathogenic bacteria in check, they produce and liberate vitamins from food. And they ensure I'm never really alone.

Thankful Day #17

Thankful Day #17: I am thankful for vaccines. We have forgotten, in the affluent Western world, what it is like to suffer epidemics of polio (which paralyzed children), diphtheria (which choked victims to death) and measles (which caused brain damage, seizures and death). In my career so far, epiglottitis, a killer of infants, has become rare due to vaccination. The hero pictured here is Jonas Salk, who developed the killed polio vaccine, rendering this once-common disease almost unheard of.

Thankful Day #16

Thankful Day #16: I am thankful for Lucretius (99-55 BCE). He wrote a long poem called "On The Nature of Things" which was virtually lost until its rediscovery in a remote monastery library by book hunter Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. The poem helped to launch the Renaissance and the modern world with its "radical" ideas (at the time) that the universe is made of "atoms," is controlled by natural laws (not the gods), and that death is nothing to fear. [Read More About It: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt (2011)]

Thankful Day #15

Thankful Day #15: I'm thankful for lenses. I'm looking through two of them, but the Assyrians invented the first one around 3000 years ago, probably to start fires with sunlight. Modern life would be almost unimaginable without eyeglasses, contact lenses, cameras, microscopes, telescopes, and the other uses of lenses in technology.

Thankful Day #14

Thankful Day #14: I am thankful for horseshoe crabs. Although they aren't really crabs (they're more closely related to ticks and spiders), the blood of this oldest living species has saved more human lives than any other animal. A product of their blood, you see, is used to ensure that injectable medications are not contaminated with bacteria, viruses or fungi.

Thankful Day #13

Thankful Day #13: I am thankful for this stern-looking gentleman's discovery and its derivatives. Edward C. Kendall won the 1950 Nobel prize in Medicine for his discovery of cortisone, a steroid hormone, while working at Mayo Clinic. Until then, there was no way to treat crippling, painful autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Thankful Day #12

Thankful Day #12: As a shout-out to my dad and brother, I am thankful for petroleum products. Take a moment to imagine life without, not only gasoline, but also plastics (e.g., Styrofoam, plumbing pipes, packaging, bottles, toothbrush bristles, much of your car, nylon, on and on), diesel, waxes, and aromatic artificial flavorings and colorings that make food palatable.

Thankful Day #11

Thankful Day #11: I am thankful for music. Human beings are a musical species - more areas of our brain are dedicated to music than are dedicated to language processing! And although I think that scientific knowledge makes everything more beautiful, sometimes you just have to enjoy the music, as neurologist Oliver Sacks explains below:

"As one's mind becomes preoccupied with theoretical or scientific issues, one may have less attention, time or emotion available for other things. But there are lots of highest-power intellectuals who stay interested in music, like Einstein. Darwin may have been as absorbed in thinking about evolution as Freud was absorbed in thinking about psychoanalysis when he went to operas. All of us are apt to get a little desiccated if we don't make a point of holding on to the delights of art and music and landscape. It's very easy to become preoccupied with theorizing and the activities of daily living and stop noticing the beauties of the world."

Thankful Day #10

Thankful Day #10: Apropos of today's date, I am thankful for the Arabic numeral system. By inventing zero and the concept of place value, the Arabs made arithmetic and higher math possible (and therefore most of science).

Thankful Day #9

Thankful Day #9: I am thankful for the anal sphincter. Allow me to quote, in full glory, Dr. Walter C. Bornemeier's brilliant statement:

"They say man has succeeded where the animals fail because of the clever use of his hands, yet when compared to the hands, the sphincter ani is far superior. If you place into your cupped hands a mixture of fluid, solid and gas and then through an opening at the bottom, try to let only the gas escape, you will fail. Yet the sphincter ani can do it. The sphincter apparently can differentiate between solid, fluid and gas. It apparently can tell whether its owner is alone or with someone, whether standing up or sitting down, whether its owner has his pants on or off. No other muscle in the body is such a protector of the dignity of man, yet so ready to come to his relief. A muscle like this is worth protecting."

Thankful Day #8

Thankful Day #8: I am thankful for the moon, which originated with the impact of a Mars-sized proto-planet with the proto-Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. It's gravitational influence gives us ocean tides, but is also slowing down the Earth's rotation by 15 microseconds a year. So you get a little extra time each day!

Thankful Day #7

Thankful Day #7: I'm thankful for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization - these government organizations successfully eradicated smallpox, the world's #1 killer. The last case occurred in 1979.

Thankful Day #6

Thankful Day #6: I'm thankful for indoor plumbing, flush toilets and waste water treatment facilities. These engineering feats have improved human life and health immensely.

Thankful Day #5

Thankful Day #5: I'm thankful for chlorophyll. This amazing chemical, discovered in 1817, absorbs most of the blue and red light spectrum, allowing plants, algae and cyanobacteria to convert CO2 to sugars and produce most of the O2 on Earth.

Thankful Day #4

Thankful Day 4: I'm thankful for 23.45 degrees. This tilt of the earth's axis gives us seasons.

Thankful Day 3

Day 3: I'm thankful for my DNA repair enzymes (e.g., DNA ligases, DNA glycosylase, etc.) that find and repair the approximately one million damaged sites in each cell every day.

Thankful Day 1 and 2

I've got to catch up with this Thankful Day stuff!
Day 1: I'm thankful for water's hydrogen bonding property. Without it, the climate on earth wouldn't be stable enough for life.
Day 2: I'm thankful for mitochondria. These little bacteria made a symbiotic pact early in eukaryotic cell evolution to provide us energy in exchange for a home.