Category Archives: Health

Your Microbiome

Microorganisms from a Human Mourh
Microorganisms from a Human Mouth, Magnified About a Zillion Times
How many cells make up your body? It’s actually not all that easy to answer that simple question. But recently, scientists have made a pretty good effort. And their final count is…37.2 trillion.
October 24, 2013

 

You know that your body is made up of cells. Right? But 37 trillion of them! Who could have guessed? And now that we know, what does it really mean? How many is 37 trillion, anyway? And how did they come up with this number in the first place?

Estimate based on volume, and you get only 15 trillion cells; by weight, you get 70 trillion cells. Unfortunately, nobody has actually counted them all yet. (I wonder why?)

They divided the body into parts and estimated the number of cells in each part, from intestines to knees. This works better because cells are packed more densely in some organs than others. There are 100 billion neuron cells in your brain alone. (Interestingly, these neurons each put out a great number of feelers that link up with, on average, the corresponding feelers from 1,000 other neurons. Altogether, your brain contains a staggering 100 trillion circuits with which to compute your thoughts and feelings.)

The smallest cell in the human body is the sperm; the largest, the egg. The ostrich lays the largest egg of any living bird, weighing up to 3.3 lb and measuring up to 7.0 in × 5.5 in; but the largest cell on the planet is probably the egg of the whale shark, measuring up to 11.8 in × 5.5 in × 3.5 in. That’s one big cell!

But I haven’t even mentioned your microbiome yet. That consists of all the single-celled bacteria, archaea, fungi, and protists that live and make their living on and in your body. The generally accepted figure is that there are ten times more microbes living on and in you than there are of your own human cells in your own human body.

Blood Cells
Blood Cells

This is possible because a human cell can easily have 1,000 times the volume of a bacterial cell, for example. Again, nobody ever sat down one afternoon and counted them. It’s an estimate.

So that’s 372 trillion critters crawling, swimming, and otherwise making their ways around your body, or just sitting still. Many of them are essrntial to your own health. A few are harmful and any number of them may be neutral, neither harming or hurting you. There are so many and they are so tiny and hard to study that it’ll be a long, long time before all that gets sorted out.

So how many is 372 trillion? It’s 372,000,000,000,000. If they were minutes into the past, no animal or plant life had evolved on earth yet. Your ancestors and mine were teensy, tiny, single-celled creatures not terribly different from an amoeba.

If these 372 trillion microbes were inches, they’d reach more than half-way across the galaxy. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of bugs! All on you.

Wash your hands before you eat.

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Penecillin Molecule

Penicillin molecule original model
Penicillin molecule original model

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming and used to treat the first patient in 1942, for streptococcal septicemia. Half of the total world supply at that time was used on that one patient.

Dorothy Hodgkin, who determined the chemical structure of penicillin
Dorothy Hodgkin, who determined the chemical structure of penicillin

In 1943, a worldwide search for the best strain of penicillin mold selected one found growing in a moldy cantaloupe in a grocery store in Peoria, IL. By the spring of 1944, the United States had produced 2.3 million doses, using mold sourced from that melon, in time for the invasion of Normandy.

During World War II, chemists cultured molds in pans and stacked them floor to ceiling in many labs to produce tiny amounts of penicillin, the only known antibiotic at that time. In spite of all they could do, it remained in such short supply that unmetabolized remnants of it were recycled from soldiers’ urine.

This 3D model of a penicillin molecule was made by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, in England, in 1945, by interpreting patterns refracted by x-rays, known as x-ray crystallography. Having this model made it possible for John Sheehan at MIT to devise a method for synthesizing the antibiotic in 1957.

Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”.

Sources

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My Two Favorite Books

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. This guy is a genuine big-brained hominid, one of the smartest people you’ll ever know, and he writes to convince his readers that our world is getting steadily better, century after century. And he proves it with facts!

Changes can be either good or bad. However, contrary to popular opinion, cultural changes around the world tend, on average, to be good, in the sense that they bring greater happiness, freedom, health, and prosperity to more ad more people.

His two latest books are possibly the two most important books I have ever read.:

  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
  • Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Pinker shows that all down through history, for the past several thousand years, the world has been slowly  getting safer from violence of all kinds including muggings, rape, murder, and war, freer from disease, poverty, and superstition, more prosperous, better fed, and happier. These are real cultural changes that usually happen so slowly that most of us are not even aware of them. But our lives are much better now than they were back in the “good old days” when you might have had to get your appendix cut out by candlelight at 3 AM. With no anesthetic.

I recommend you read both books.

Let’s Stop Fixin’ Stuff and Create Some New Systems

It’s Bill Maher, so you know he’s going to be using some crude language. But this is worth watching in spite of it.

I really wish he wouldn’t use the kind of language he uses, because I like him very much otherwise. But we live in a free country. (Well, at least in theory.) So he can say whatever he wants to on his own show.

My problem is that I have to decide whether a particular video is important enough to post it on MY BLOG in spite of the language. Usually it’s not, but I think this one is.

Bill Maher is exactly right when commenting on the state of our country.

Pain Pump Posting Hiatus

Synchromed pain pumpI apologize for the hiatus in posting. I can only blame it on the minor surgery I had Monday, November 2. All went well, as expected; but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do much useful work yet.

I’ve mentioned my chronic pain before, but I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned my “pain pump” or not.

I have chronic pain in several forms, and I’ve had it for more than 60 years. The two worst causes right now are my severe psoriatic arthritis and my sometimes excruciating peripheral neuropathy. In addition, I still have an occasional migraine, although I seem to have mostly “outgrown” those in my mid-40s. Before that, I had suffered migraine headaches every day for more than 20 years and less often even before that. The first one I remember, I was five years old; and I thought the left side of my face was rotting off for two days!

Since there is no known cure for either psoriatic arthritis or neuropathy, I use a variety of methods to control the pain. Probably the most effective way is by using a “pain pump” implanted under the skin of my lower right back. It pumps a tiny — but constant — amount of opioid liquid to my spinal fluid 24 hours a day, and can be adjusted by using a magnetic controller in my doctor’s office.

The pump holds up to 40 ml (about an ounce and a half) of a dilute liquid, which lasts for several months. When it runs low, it can be refilled over and over again by sticking a needle through my skin and into a diaphragm in the pump. About every five years, when the battery runs low, the entire unit is replaced.

No big deal. Really.

I got to the hospital about 8 am. Something caused the doctor to run late, but that was no problem to me. I was prepared. I spent the time reading a good science book on my iPhone. An anesthesiologist came for me about 11:00. He slipped a mask over my face and told me, “Just relax now and breathe deeply.” I remember taking about three breaths. The next thing I knew, I was in another room on another table, and somebody was telling me to wake up. By about 1:00 pm, I was on my way home.

While I was asleep, they rolled me over on my stomach, made a small incision in my skin, removed the cigarette-box-sized-but-round old pump, inserted a new pump just like it into the same spot, hooked it up to the tubes already in place from last time, made sure it was working, and glued my skin back together. I had a strip of clear, waterproof tape for a bandage.

I’ve had no increased pain from the surgery, and I’ve needed no additional help at home. It was by far the easiest operation I’ve ever had. So maybe it’s just making excuses to blame the posting hiatus on that. I dunno, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Wouldn’t you?

I’ve written this not only to make excuses, but also to inform others who might be suffering. Chronic pain is a terrible and very common problem among older people, and even among many younger ones. Pain is supposed to serve a purpose, but chronic pain serves none. It just hurts and hurts and hurts and it seems like there’s nothing you can do about it and sometimes you almost want to die.

Almost.

My medicine doesn’t take all the pain away, but it helps. It takes the edge off  and makes the remaining pain bearable. Sometimes, it almost goes away for a while.

My first pain pump 12 years ago

I resisted getting a pain pump for many years, until one of the best doctors I have ever known told me there was nothing else he could do for me. He had recommended a pain pump before, and he recommended a pain pump again. I saw two different “pain doctors,” and they both recommended installing a pain pump. So I had a pain pump installed. The relief was both quick and wonderful. For a long time, I told people I hurt less than I had hurt for 50 years.

It has never done the whole job. I still have to take pills. And I still hurt sometimes. But it helps so much I only wish I had gotten my first pain pump many years earlier.

I’m not a doctor, and I certainly don’t give medical advice. I only post this here in the hope that it will provide information that might help somebody else.


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Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King Jr.

Constitution of the United States of AmericaAs noted in the sidebar, the above quote is the guiding principle of this blog. I intend to speak out about things that matter. While there are many kinds of things that matter, it has always been my primary intention to write about science and the skepticism that is an essential part of it, including the nature that science studies and the technology it creates.

My passion for those four things — science, skepticism, nature, and technology — will not diminish. However, I also feel compelled to discuss American Presidential politics more for the next few months — maybe all the way to the election in about a year and a half. Presidential election campaigns in the United States have become circuses that last a minimum of two years, beginning long before anybody officially declares his or her candidacy. This is insane. Election campaigns in most of the free world last days or weeks, by comparison.

Not only that, but American elections cost an enormous amount of money. So much money that all but two candidates this time are seeking the backing of billionaires and SuperPACs. Otherwise, they cannot hope to finance their campaigns. One of the two exceptions is himself a billionaire, so he doesn’t have to sell his soul — if any — to the super-rich for campaign donations.

The other exception is focussing on getting small donations from middle-class people and is doing incredibly well. So well that he has been able, so far, to wage a very competitive campaign against the Democratic front-runner, who, for a long time, was considered a shoo-in for the nomination.

The Republican frontrunner is a self-centered, sexist, blustering, billionaire, bully. Please don’t misunderstand; I have nothing against billionaires personally. I’ve always wanted to be one myself. It’s self-centered, sexist, blustering, bullies I have a problem with, whether rich or poor; but being rich makes them better at it. Whether or not he can keep his followers loyal until the primaries start in Iowa on February 1 is anybody’s guess. I hope not.

The other Republicans are all scientifically illiterate; even those you’d think ought not to be, like the medical doctors. They deny evolution, almost without exception. Several are young earth creationists, claiming our world is less than 10,000 years old. That’s incredibly ignorant for the potential “Leader of the Free World!”

Most of them also want to ban most or all abortions, repeal the Affordable Care Act rather than fix it, leaving tens of millions of additional citizens unable to afford basic medical care; and commit a number of other atrocities like gutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, and other essential services. Several even openly and plainly put their interpretations of the Bible above the Constitution a President is sworn to uphold and protect.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not pleased with the Democratic frontrunner, either. Too many questions remain unanswered about the Benghazi Massacre. “Why does it matter now?” is not an appropriate response to an investigator’s question. It matters because it speaks to the character, loyalty, and ability of the then Secretary of State (as well as the current President, of course; but he’s not a candidate this time). In addition, there are still too many questions about her email debacle.

I sympathize completely with the guy who said a few elections back, “If God wanted me to vote, I think He’d give me somebody to vote for.” But I will vote, as I always have.

For the duration of this political circus, I feel compelled to make a lot more posts of a political nature. The Presidency is just too important to let it fall into the hands of another incompetent ignoramus like some we’ve had recently, an irresponsible, self-aggrandizing blowhard, or any of those candidates who would place their own beliefs and desires above the Constitution and laws of our nation.

The United States is not, never has been, and must never be “one nation under God.” Our forefathers fled that kind of nation in Europe when they came to North America in search of religious freedom. That’s why we have always been (since 1789) one nation under the Constitution of the United States of America.

Black Death Still Lives

Two new “black death” patients.

Black rat, Rattus rattusFor the second time this summer, health officials in California are investigating a case of plague that a camper most likely contracted while visiting Yosemite National Park.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is testing a visitor from Georgia who camped at Yosemite, the Sierra National Forest and the surrounding areas in early August. Two campgrounds were closed after another case was announced two weeks ago. Since then the authorities have been warning visitors of possible plague risks.

New York Times
August 19,2015

Plague, also known as “bubonic plague,”  “black plague,” “black death,” and several other appellations, wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century — some historians estimate as high as two thirds — and also very large numbers of people several other times and places. Before entering Europe this time, it had ravaged China, India, and areas along the trade routes of the East.

The same germ had also been responsible for the Plague of Justinian that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe in 541–542 A.D. and maybe that many more over the next two centuries. It came to Europe and spread there in the blood of the ironically named black rat (pictured above).

The Black Death arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the Black Sea. The people who gathered on the docks to greet the ships were met with a horrifying surprise: Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill. They were overcome with fever, unable to keep food down and delirious from pain. Strangest of all, they were covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus and gave their illness its name: the “Black Death.” The Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the mysterious Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe–almost one-third of the continent’s population.

History.com

It’s rare among humans now, but it survives in rodent populations in the southwestern United States and elsewhere. The rodents are generally immune to it, but their fleas are not. Fleas ingest the bacteria and become infected when they drink the blood of an infected animal. The bacteria actually multiply in the flea’s gut until they clog up its digestive system and make it vomit when it bites another animal and tries to feed again. It regurgitates infected saliva and blood into the new animal, passing the infection to it. Occasionally, humans gets infected this way.

Yersinia pestis bacterium causes black death.

The disease is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which can also cause “pneumonic plague” or “septicemic plague.” The difference between the three forms depends only where the infection exists in the body, but that difference is important.

Pneumonic plague, a severe type of lung infection, is one of three main forms of plague, all of which are caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is more virulent and rarer than bubonic plague. The difference between the versions of plague is simply the location of the infection in the body; the bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system, the pneumonic plague is an infection of the respiratory system, and the septicemic plague is an infection in the blood stream.

Wikipedia

Three forms of the disease

An untreated Yersinia pestis infection in the lymph nodes, the bubonic form, may be fatal in humans around 30% of the time.  An untreated infection in the lungs, the pneumonic form, is not only more likely to be fatal, but is also more contagious; it is spread through the air when the patient coughs, like the flu is. The untreated septicemic form, in the blood, is fatal in 99% to 100% of patients. However, this form is rare.

The bubonic form is usually caught from the bite of an infected flea. Only rarely does this become one of the other forms. However, in those rare cases when the infection does settle in the lungs (possibly because of a prior lung infection), then it becomes pneumonic and spreads through the air to the lungs of other people. In this form, it can wipe out a whole family in a week.

“In men and women alike,” the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote, “at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils.” Blood and pus seeped out of these strange swellings, which were followed by a host of other unpleasant symptoms–fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible aches and pains–and then, in short order, death.

History.com

Patients with all forms of this disease usually recover if treated soon enough with antibiotics. Probably the worst danger from black death now is that it’s so rare it’s not always identified in time for treatment to work.

There are a series of short videos on the subject here, where you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the black death in about 26 minutes total. But be warned, they are gruesome.

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