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June 2019 - Answers With Joe

Month: June, 2019

Could A Solar Superflare Destroy The World?

The sun is a solar flare machine, constantly spitting out waves of charged particles in all directions. Sometimes these hit Earth. Luckily we’re protected by a strong magnetic field that directs the particles to the poles, which we experience as the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.

But from time to time, the sun erupts in a massive superflare, also known as a CME or Coronal Mass Ejection. These can push our magnetic shield to its limits and actually cause electrical problems on the ground.

One of the worst instances of a CME striking the Earth occurred in 1859. It disrupted the telegraph system and sent sparks flying out of switchboards. It became known as the Carrington Event and begs the question – what if it happened today?

Alan Shepard: American Badass

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Alan Shepard entered the history books by being the first American in space. And while his launch was overshadowed by that of Yuri Gagarin – which beat his by only a few weeks – his career, talent, and legacy are nothing short of legendary.

Alan Shepard was one of the Mercury 7 astronauts along with Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Wally Shira, and Gordon Cooper. This was NASA’s first manned space program.

Alan’s mission was given the name Freedom 7 and he went up on a Mercury Redstone rocket. His flight was suborbital and only lasted 15 minutes, but started the US on the course for the moon.

But Alan Shepard’s early career started as a pilot in the Navy, where he ascended to become a test pilot, testing out the newest fighter jets and helping to decide which ones became part of the Navy’s arsenal.

After his Mercury flight, Shepard was grounded on account of Meniere’s Disease, which causes pressure in the inner ear and creates balance and orientation issues. But after corrective surgery, he was reinstated into the space program and served a commander on the Apollo 14 mission.

Bacteriophages: The Future Of Medicine

With antibiotic-resistant bacteria becoming an increasingly bigger concern, attention is being paid to phage therapy – using viruses to beat infections. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what can be done with bacteriophages, including cures for things like HIV and cancer.

Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, so-called “phage therapy” was all the rage. “Phage” is from a Greek word meaning “to devour”, so the notion was that certain viruses will eat certain bacteria. And those viruses are called bacteriophages.

The way a phage kills makes it more like a facehugger from Alien than a predator from…oh, some other movie…let’s say Jurassic Park. The point is, phage therapy works. It was considered a mainstream treatment for decades in Europe and Canada.

After penicillin became widely available in the 1940s, interest in phage therapy dropped. Antibiotics were just more effective at wiping out bacteria, and it was also easier to pop a pill than get a shot.

But antibiotics weren’t always easy to find in all parts of the world. In portions of the former Soviet Union, especially Georgia, doctors continued to use phage therapy for decades, and they were innovating on the idea the whole time.

Of course the Soviets were fanatically secretive, so the Georgians weren’t able to share their knowledge at the time. It’s only recently that the rest of the world has rediscovered the advancements they made.

Phages may turn out to be a gamechanger against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And possibly a lot more.

There have been some recent successes with phage therapy that are worth mentioning, including the case of Tom Patterson.

In 2015, Tom’s pancreas became inflamed while he was on a vacation in Egypt. Conventional treatment didn’t help, and pretty soon he slipped into a coma.

But recently his wife had gotten a tip from a colleague about phage therapy, and with the help of experts from UC San Diego a bacteriophage was harvested and administered.

Three days later, Tom woke up. He wasn’t completely out of the woods, the bacteria had developed an immunity and the doctors had to harvest other bacteriophage strains, but after several months, he was pronounced cured, making him the first US patient to be successfully treated with phage therapy.

This example highlights a strength of the therapy, namely, the abundance of bacteriophages. If one stops working, you can try another.

But there’s also a question of access. Tom and his wife work with the UC San Diego experts who saved his life, they were friends, so they put a lot of time and effort into saving him. Time and effort most of us probably wouldn’t be able to receive.

The point is, making therapies like his available to all will require a cultural shift towards personalized care.

Another fascinating recent case is that of Isabelle Carnell-Holdaway.

Isabelle was a teenager with cystic fibrosis and had just undergone a double lung transplant when her wounds became infected.

Her doctors administered a bacteriophage cocktail that cleared up the infection in days, though Isabelle continued needing treatment for some time.

Her eventual cure is great in itself, but the unique part is that the bacteriophages she was given were genetically engineered. This was a world first for phage therapy.

The Tragic Life Of Lucia Zarate: The Smallest Woman Ever

Lucia Zarate was a popular sideshow performer in the late 1800s and was billed as the human doll for the fact that she was only 24 inches tall and weighed only 4.7 pounds, a world record to this day.

Learning about Lucia tells us a lot about how the shortest person in the world is determined. It’s more complicated than you think.

Do You Exist In Infinite Universes?

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Experiments like the double slit experiment have spawned multiple interpretations of quantum physics, including the Copenhagen interpretation and Pilot Wave Theory. But the Many Worlds Hypothesis might be the most mind-blowing of all.

The most popular interpretation of quantum mechanics over the past hundred years was developed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen, around 1925. This was fittingly named the Copenhagen Interpretation.

Louis de Broglie [de Broy] came up with the Pilot Wave Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics at about the same time, which I’ve also covered.

Both of these interpretations share the belief that the measured path of a particle is the only real path. The other paths are mere possibilities.

About 30 years later, a slightly drunk Princeton student disagreed. While sipping sherry, or so the story goes, Hugh Everett III started asking, what if all the paths do exist, but are just taken in different realities?

Everett’s ideas were… not well received to say the least. At the time, Niels Bohr was then alive and active in scientific circles. He had a reputation for shutting down any physicist who dared challenge the Copenhagen Interpretation.

And that was where the idea stayed, relegated to the dustbin of history, for the next 2 decades, before it got rediscovered by Bryce DeWitt.

He was the acting editor at Reviews of Modern Physics in 1973 when he ran across the paper and was stunned that nothing ever came of this idea.

Since the 1970s, the Many Worlds Interpretation has gone from being fringe science to an idea mainstream physicists can get behind.

Stephen Hawking was a fan, as was Richard Feynman…though to hear physicists tell it, Feynman was a fan of literally EVERYTHING.

One prominent proponent of Many Worlds working today is David Deutsch, who is a quantum computer pioneer whose cool factor went through the roof when he was mentioned in Avengers: Endgame.

What Is Time?

Time is something we experience every day, and it seems like something we’d be familiar with. But when you dig into it, it gets weird. So what exactly is it? And how does it work?

Saint Augustine, the Christian monk was once asked what is time, and his answer was, “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

The ancient Egyptians measured time with obelisks that served as sundials, water clocks that flowed at a steady rate, and of course hourglasses.

It was the Babylonians that first divided the day into hours made up of 60 minutes each with 60 seconds per minute, this was all the way back in 1800 BCE.

It was the great Dutch astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens who invented the first pendulum clock in 1656, which used a weight that swung at specific intervals to keep time. This would be the most precise way to keep time for nearly 300 years.

1927 saw the invention of the quartz crystal clock, which uses the piezoelectric properties of quartz which vibrates at a rate of 32,768 Hz, giving it an accuracy of 6 parts per million.

But the most accurate measure of time we’ve been able to conceive so far is the atomic clock, which uses the natural resonance of a cesium atom.

Ss the scientific revolution began to take hold, the main argument around time was had by the Absolutists and Relationalists.

Absolutists believed in absolute time. The idea that time was an independent, absolute constant of the universe, that it wasn’t affected by our perception of it or by the interaction of matter.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of these Absolutists.

The Relationalists saw time as a measure of change. Basically arguing that the only reason time exists is because of the changing state of matter.

Newton’s second law of thermodynamics states that in a closed system, entropy will always increase over time. Entropy being a movement toward a state of equilibrium.

By the way, another really interesting way to look at entropy is through a statistical mechanics model, which was championed by Ludwig Boltzmann.

There’s a more philosophical debate on the nature of time that has to do with how it actually progresses, between what they call tensed and tenseless theories of time.

The tensed theory of time states that the future doesn’t exist yet, that it’s a tree with branches that spread as the now passes through the tree.

The tenseless theory of time suggest that the past, present, and future are all equally real and what we experience as time is just the now passing down the timeline.

Einstein stated in his 1905 paper on special relativity that the laws of physics and the speed of light must be the same for all uniformly moving observers. And for this to be true, space and time can no longer be independent. This was the only way for the speed of light to be constant for all observers.

But it was Minkowski three years later who came up with the idea that space and time could be seen as a single four-dimensional spacetime fabric. He closed out his paper on the subject by saying, “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality”.

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