Today, 20 May back in 1990, people on earth got their first glimpse at a photograph from arguably the most expensive camera in the world – or at least using the most expensive lens in the world. Today celebrates the day that the first photographic image (an image of a double star 1,260 light years away) was sent to earth from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
The HST was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990, and remains in operation until today. In it’s 20+ years of operation, it has dazzled us with some truly mind-blowing images. The fact that it’s orbit lies outside the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere means that it can capture amazingly sharp images, with practically no background light, providing scientists with a detailed view into deep space and time. The instruments on the telescope observes light in the near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared ranges.
Today we celebrate the birthday of William P Murphy (6 Feb 1892 – 9 Oct 1987), the American physician who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1934, together with George Minot and George Whipple, for work done towards the treatment of pernicious anaemia by means of a diet of uncooked liver.
Murphy’s initial research involved bleeding dogs to create anaemic conditions in the animals (not a nice thought!), and then treating them with various diets, one of which was a diet of uncooked liver. The discovery that liver helped to relieve anaemia prompted further research into liver by Murphy, Minot and Whipple, and it was found that it contained iron, and that the iron was largely responsible for curing anaemia from bleeding.
Experiments with intramuscular injections of liver extract to treat pernicious anaemia led to further discoveries – it was discovered that in this case the active ingredient was not the iron, but a water-soluble substance later identified as Vitamin B12.
This new knowledge, and the discovery that raw liver and its extracts could be used to treat anaemia, were major advances in medicine at the time.
It was on this day back in 1938 that Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesized the psychedelic drug LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide.
The story goes that Hofmann, working in the pharmaceutical-chemical department of Sandoz laboratories in Basel, was investigating the purification and synthesis of active constituents from the squill plant and ergot fungus, for use in new pharmaceuticals. While studying derivatives of lysergic acid for use in a respiratory and circulatory stimulant, he synthesized LSD, a semi-synthetic derivative of ergot alkaloids. The newly discovered drug apparently didn’t show much promise, as the project was set aside for 5 years until 1943, when Hofmann decided to return to it for some further investigations. After re-synthesizing LSD, a small amount of the drug was absorbed in his body when it accidentally came in contact with his fingertips.
It was this accidental contact that illustrated the potency of his discovery in a most vivid way. His notes on the experience included the following description:
“At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”
Impressed by its power, he decided to study it in more detail, and on 19 April 1943 he performed a self-experiment, ingesting 0.25mg of LSD. Within an hour he started experiencing an extreme reaction and requested his lab assistant to escort him home. As wartime restrictions prohibited the use of motor vehicles, they had to make the journey by bicycle. During the journey home Hofmann experienced severe hallucinations and heightened anxiety, fearing that he poisoned himself. His house doctor was called in, but he could find no physical abnormalities, except for very dilated pupils. This gave Hofmann some reassurance, and after a while his anxious state subsided, giving way to a state of hallucinatory euphoria where he again experienced vividly coloured and constantly changing dream-images.
Hofmann, realising the potency of the drug, felt it had huge potential as a psychiatric tool. Given the intensity of his experience, he had no inkling that anyone would consider using it recreationally.
(He was clearly wrong on this point – his experience, dubbed ‘Bicycle Day’, became famous in drug history, and continued to be celebrated enthusiastically in psychedelic communities many years later.)
After Hofmann’s initial experience, interest in LSD soared, and over the next 15 years it was the subject of extensive studies, becoming the topic of hundreds of academic papers and even entire scientific conferences. It became used in psychotherapy, treatment of depression, and as a supposed cure for alcoholism. At the same time, the CIA also became interested in the potential of the drug for their applications, funding a project known as MK-ULTRA where subjects (many unwittingly) were exposed to the drug to test its effects. This highly controversial project, that continued for almost two decades, included investigations on the potential for various drugs in combination with stress or specific environmental conditions, to break down prisoners or induce confessions, and had a lasting psychological impact on many of its subjects.
It wasn’t long before the popularity of the drug went beyond its medicinal application. Initially psychiatrists started using it recreationally and sharing it with their friends., and by the early 60s its recreational use had gained much wider popularity. It has had a huge influence on music and art, particularly the psychedelic movement of the 60s. LSD had a number of highly visible and vocal supporters, including one-time academic turned LSD guru Dr Timothy Leary, and author Ken Kesey (whose experiences as part of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA programme became the inspiration for his “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”)
By April 1966 LSD had become so popular that Time magazine, who had published a number of positive reports on the drug in the 1950s, published a warning about its dangers. At the same time, the US government stepped in and declared the drug illegal, giving it a Schedule 1 (“high potential for abuse”) status. California banned the drug in October 1966, with other states, and the rest of the world, following soon after.
I can only wonder what Albert Hofmann, working in his lab in the late 1930s, would have thought if he could have had a glimpse into the future to see the range of effects and applications of the drug he was working on. In chaos theory, the example is often given of a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world potentially being the impetus for a massive storm thousands of miles away, but I think the image of Albert Hofmann’s laboratory research in the 1930s resulting in a psychedelic festival of music and culture in the 1960s, would be an equally vivid illustration!
Today is the last Friday in October, the last Friday before Halloween, which means tonight is Howl at the Moon Night. If you’re a fan of Twilight, or any of the vampire franchises, this may be old news to you, and you’ll be all excited and prepared for this night already. On the other hand, if (like me), the whole vampire scene fails to move you, you can always take this opportunity to get rid of some pent-up frustration by indulging in a good holler once the moon appears over the horizon. I’m not suggesting the whole primal therapy trip that was so popular in the early 70s – all I’m saying is that a good yell, howl, holler or scream can do wonders for your stress levels, and if there’s a day (or night) giving you the perfect opportunity to let it rip, why not?
Of course, unless you work the night shift, you’re unlikely to be at work when the yelling starts. Which is a pity, given that a study reported in The Independent indicates that freely expressing anger in the workplace is a good way of keeping your heart healthy. Apparently, people who suffer in silence after unfair treatment at work have twice the risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who vent their anger. Researchers from the University of Stockholm followed 2755 male workers for a period of 13 years, from 1990 to 2003, measuring their blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol levels, and related this to their coping mechanisms at work. After correcting for biological factors, they found those who bottled up their anger had higher blood pressure and were twice as likely to suffer from heart disease. Studies on women showed similar trends, though not as pronounced as their male counterparts.
The value of a good yell is widely acknowledged. American psychiatrist Dr Peter Calafiura says that yelling can have a positive mental influence. It triggers endorphins, resulting in a natural high, and a generally good feeling. This is very similar to the well-known runner’s high, so perhaps today is a good day to skip your post-work run and rather have a howl at the moon – it should result in an equally good mood!
Today is the birthday of Charles Glen King (22 Oct 1896 – 23 Jan 1988), an American biochemist and the ‘other guy’ who also discovered Vitamin C.
In the early 1930s, King was doing research on the anti-scurvy effects of lemon juice on guinea pigs (guinea pigs are one of only a small group of animals besides humans who cannot produce their own vitamin C, hence they can get scurvy like us). At the same time, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was studying the chemical hexuronic acid that he had previously isolated from animal adrenal glands. Within 2 weeks of each other, both King and Szent-Gyorgyi published papers on the discovery of Vitamin C, showing that the vitamin and hexuronic acid were the same compound.
Szent-Gyorgyi went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, for his part in the discovery of Vitamin C, while King was not similarly rewarded. Controversy remains over the extent to which both men deserve partial credit for the discovery.
Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid, thanks to its anti-scurvy properties (a- = not; scorbus = scurvy). Besides fighting off scurvy, Vitamin C has many other benefits – it is a cofactor in numerous enzymatic reactions in the body, and it has important antioxidant properties. It also enhances iron absorption, and is a natural antihistamine. However, while it is found in high concentrations in immune cells, its flu-fighting power may be a myth. Despite extensive research, Vitamin C has not been proven effective in the prevention or treatment of colds and flu. It does not reduce the incidence or severity of the common cold, but there are some indications that it may help reduce the duration of illness.
Still, even though it may not ward away the sniffles, getting a decent daily dose will definitely do you more good than harm – there doesn’t appear to be many adverse effects from overdosing, since excessive amounts of Vitamin C is simply lost through nonabsorption or urination.
So, don’t hold back on the chilli peppers, guavas, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, fresh herbs, kiwifruit, strawberries and, yes, good old oranges.
And while you’re feasting away, spare a thought for Charles Glen King, the unsung hero in the Vitamin C story.
Today is Positive Thinking Day. The day reminding you that if you can think it, you can do it. That if you smile and focus on positive thoughts, you will feel better. That you need to visualise success in order to achieve it.
The ‘power of positive thinking’ has been one of the most jumped-upon bandwagons ever in motivational pop-psychology – so simple, such a positive message. Try a Google or Amazon search for ‘positive thinking’ and you will be inundated with self-help books, courses, motivational posters, famous quotes, you name it.
It all started as a legitimate new field of psychology in the 90’s, known as Positive Psychology, led by the likes of psychologist Martin Seligman. Where much of the the focus in psychology had historically been rather negative (mental illness, addiction, etc), the idea behind positive psychology was to explore and better understand positive aspects such as happiness, virtue, resilience and optimism. The idea was never, however, to advocate indiscriminate, mindless optimism – even Seligman long ago expressed the warning that optimism “may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity”.
Many aspects of positive psychology struck an obvious chord with motivational speakers, self-help authors and the like, and soon positive thinking went from one weapon in the psychologist’s arsenal to the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems.
As such it’s not surprising that there has been a bit of a backlash from the scientific community to the magical magnificence of positive thinking. For example, some of the literature showing the correlation between a positive attitude and good health, may have stretched things a bit by using this relationship to support the claim that a positive attitude will result in improved health. Yes, there seems to be a clear correlation between attitude and health, but little prove of causality. Does positive thinking cause good health, or does good health result in a positive attitude? Or can it be that there is no causative relation between health and attitude at all, and that it is just that a specific subset of people in society (perhaps those with, for example, naturally high energy levels) happen to exhibit both good health and a generally positive attitude.
A healthy dose of pessimism or negativity may also help us identify potential challenges we face in pursuing our goals, which may help us better prepare for these eventualities, thereby actually increasing our chances of success.
Researchers at Wellesley College have found that forcing people out of their natural attitudinal state may have a detrimental effect on their performance – a group of defensive pessimists who were forced to try and change their attitude and ‘cheer up’ actually performed worse at subsequent tasks. A 2001 study by Seligman and Isaacowitz, involving participants from an elderly community, also found that the pessimists in the group were less likely than the optimists to fall into depression after experiencing negative life events such as the death of a partner or good friend.
Recent years have seen a resurgence in the field of positive psychology, with psychologists like Canadian Jamie Gruman, co-founder of the new Canadian Positive Psychology Association, again promoting the study of human well-being and happiness and emphasizing strengths rather than ailments. The new proponents of the field are careful, however, not to be seen as just another ‘lollipops-and-rainbows’ approach, but rather to promote a balanced approach to living a positive life.
So, I guess the message on Positive Thinking day should be to think as positively as you feel comfortable doing. Even if positive thinking may not necessarily be the magical prescription for good health and a long happy life, I am at least not aware of any studies showing that being positive may actually be bad for your health.
Except of course if you go happily venturing down dodgy, dark and dangerous alleyways because of your unshakably optimistic belief in the goodness of your fellow man… Or if your unflinching positivity starts driving your less flowery fellow workers to physical violence…
Whichever way you roll, here’s a little song (a wonderful new version of an old classic) to brighten your day. Happy Positive Thinking Day everyone…
It’s Daffodil Day today, August 31st. Well, it’s Daffodil Day in New Zealand, to be exact – Australian Daffodil Day happened on the 24th of this month already. The US, bless them, seem to have a whole bunch of different Daffodil Days across different states. (With Daffodils being a spring flower, it obviously makes sense that most US Daffodil Days happen earlier in the year, around February, and not August/September, as it does down here in the South.)
Daffodil Day is all about cancer – raising awareness of the disease, raising funds for cancer related research, and creating a support network for individuals suffering from the disease.
Cancer is an incredibly pervasive, prevalent disease – here in New Zealand it is the leading cause of death in the country – and I’m sure there are very few people who are not in some way fairly directly affected by it. My dad died of cancer in his liver and colon; my mother in law is a breast-cancer survivor; just about everyone I know has someone close to them who has either died from, or is living with, the disease.
In a nutshell, cancer occurs when cells in the body accumulate genetic changes (due to various factors), resulting in a loss of growth control. Normal cells grow, divide and die in an orderly manner, in response to signals from the body and the environment. When cells become cancerous, however, they fail to respond to the normal signals, and start growing and dividing in an uncontrolled manner. These out-of-control cells can spread through the body via the bloodstream or lymph vessels (a process called metastasis) and continue to grow and replace normal tissue. It is the fact that it’s the body’s own cells that go crazy and effectively turn against their host, that makes it such a complex disease to treat.
As mentioned, one of the critical focus areas of Daffodil Day is raising money to support research into finding cures for the disease.
Over the years, literally billions of dollars have been spent on cancer research, and it’s quite a sobering thought when you realise that, in spite of all this, the death rate from the disease has changed little over the past 50 or so years. As new therapies are developed, cancer also adapts and evolves, finding new ways to kill.
Now this does not mean all is in vain – millions of people have been saved from the therapies that have been developed. All it means is that there is no room for complacency, and new and more effective cancer therapies are continually needed to stay ahead of, or at least keep up with, the disease.
In my job as a science photographer, I interact with a wide range of research and technology organisations, and one of the most inspiring of these is the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research – New Zealand’s leading medical research institute, and a registered charity based in Wellington, NZ. The reason I mention this fact is that one of their main fields of research is cancer (they also research cures for asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and infectious diseases) and they are one of the organisations supported through the proceeds of fundraising events like Daffodil Day.
One of the main fields of cancer research that the Malaghan Institute focuses on is Immunotherapy, which basically involves using the immune system and it’s unique properties to complement existing cancer treatments. As they explain, “Immune cells are specific and have the capacity to discriminate between normal and cancer cells, they have powerful effector capacity and can recruit inflammatory cells to destroy neoplastic tissue, and they can migrate to different tissues and eliminate residual metastatic disease.” So, similar techniques to those used in helping the immune system recognise and fight contagious diseases (such as vaccination, etc), can also be used to help the immune system recognise cancer cells and to strengthen their ability to destroy them.
Another more recent research subject at the Institute is cancer stem cell research. Cancer stem cells are cancer’s evil root – these tumor initiating cells are highly resistant to drug and radiation treatment – and the focus of the research is on finding safe and effective ways to eradicate them.
Organisations like the Malaghan Institute, and many others like them across the world, are doing incredible work to address the continually evolving threat of cancer, and really need all the support they can get. It’s a scary, scary topic, and it’s good to know there are talented, committed scientists and researchers out there facing the challenge head on.
Today we celebrate the life and work of New Zealand’s greatest scientist, Lord Ernest Rutherford – the father of nuclear physics. In the words of the author John Campbell, “He is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to electricity and Einstein to relativity.”
Rutherford was responsible for three fundamental contributions to the field: (1) he explained radioactivity as the spontaneous disintegration of the atom; (2) he determined the structure of the atom; and (3) he was the first to split the atom.
Ernest Rutherford was born on 30 August 1871 in the South Island town of Nelson, New Zealand. His father James Rutherford, the son of a Scottish immigrant, came to New Zealand at the age of four, while his mother, Martha Rutherford (née Thompson) emigrated with her widowed mother from England when she was thirteen. The Rutherfords, in the words of dad James, wanted “to raise a little flax and a lot of children”. Not sure how they managed on the flax, but they certainly lived up to their aspirations in the children department – young Ernest was the second son, and fourth child, of no less than twelve Rutherford children.
Rutherford excelled academically, winning a scholarship to the Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand. After completing his basic university studies through the University of New Zealand, he successfully applied for another scholarship, which enabled bim to go to the UK to complete his postgraduate studies at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.
While working with Professor JJ Thompson, Rutherford discovered that radioactive uranium gave off two separate types of emissions – he named these alpha and beta rays. Beta rays were subsequently identified as high speed electrons.
Radioactivity and the spontaneous disintegration of the atom
In 1898 Rutherford accepted a professorship at McGlll University in Montreal, Canada. It was here, with the help of a young chemist, Frederick Soddy, that he conducted the research that gained him the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, investigating “the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances”. (Soddy himself later received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.)
Determining the structure of the atom
A subsequent move to Manchester, England, to be nearer to what he considered the main centres of science, saw Rutherford taking on a professorship at the Manchester University. With his research assistant, Ernest Marsden, he investigated the scattering of alpha rays (something he first noticed while still at McGill). They noticed some alpha rays would ‘bounce back’ when hitting even a thin gold film – this was a most surprising result, with Rutherford likening it to firing a large naval shell at a tissue paper, and seeing it bounce back. This led to him developing his concept of the ‘nucleus’, his greatest contribution to physics. According to this concept the whole mass of the atom, and all its positive charge, is concentrated in a miniscule point at its centre, which he termed the nucleus.
The Danish physicist Niels Bohr began working with Rutherford, and he adapted Rutherford’s nuclear structure to include electrons in stable formation around the nucleus. The Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom, with some improvements from Heisenberg, remains valid to this day.
Splitting the atom
In 1919, during his last year at Manchester, Rutherford noted that the nuclei of certain light elements, like nitrogen, would disintegrate when bombarded by alpha particles coming from a radioactive source, and that during this process fast protons were emitted. By doing this, Rutherford became the first person to split the atom. Patrick Blackett (winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physics) later proved that splitting the nitrogen atom actually transformed it into an oxygen isotope, so Rutherford effectively became the first to deliberately transmute one element into another.
Rutherford received the knighthood in 1914; he was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1925, and in 1931 he was raised to the peerage as Lord Rutherford of Nelson. A proud New Zealander despite living and working abroad for most of his academic career, he chose to include in his coat of arms a Kiwi, a Maori Warrior and Hermes Trismegistus, the patron saint of knowledge and alchemists.
He died in Cambridge on October 19, 1937, leaving his wife Mary Newton, and only child Eileen.
A great scientist, Rutherford’s contribution is perhaps best summarised in his eulogy in the New York Times: “It is given to but few men to achieve immortality, still less to achieve Olympian rank, during their own lifetime. Lord Rutherford achieved both. In a generation that witnessed one of the greatest revolutions in the entire history of science he was universally acknowledged as the leading explorer of the vast infinitely complex universe within the atom, a universe that he was first to penetrate.”
A hearty good day to everyone, and welcome to the new week. And yes, today ‘hearty’ is indeed the operational word, as this seems to have been an important day in history as far as the heart is concerned.
Today we celebrate the birthday of Jerome Murray (20 Aug 1912 – 7 Jan 1998), an American inventor who invented the peristaltic pump that made open-heart surgery possible. The pump was unique in that it was able to pump blood without damaging the human cells, through a method of expansion and contraction that imitates the peristaltic process.
Exactly 10 years after Murray’s birth, the Japanese surgeon Akutsu Tetsuzo (20 Aug 1922 – 9 Aug 2007), was born. Tetsuzo was the surgeon who built the first artificial heart that was successfully implanted into an animal. The heart that Tetsuzo developed was implanted into a dog on 12 Dec 1957, and kept the dog alive for about an hour and a half. While this may not be very long, it did open the door to further research into the domain, eventually leading to the succesful development of artificial hearts for humans.
So, even though today is not officially a heart holiday, it is clearly quite an important day in the history of the heart, and particularly the research and development of artificial technologies to support the human heart.
Spare a thought for your heart – it’s an amazing organ, and everyone who can live out their lives with their own, healthy hearts should count themselves really lucky. If something does go wrong, however, at least it’s good to know that there are clever people like Jerome Murray and Akutsu Tetsuzo in the world, who consider it their lives’ task to develop the incredible technologies that help keep us ticking along.
Today we’re discussing a subject that’s on many women’s lips – we’re celebrating the birth of Hazel Bishop (17 Aug 1906 – 5 Dec 1998), an American chemist, cosmetic executive, and the inventor of non-smear lipstick.
While the impact of this invention on the progress of humankind may be limited, it certainly left an indelible mark on the cosmetics industry.
Interestingly, it is said that Ms Bishop got the idea while working as an organic chemist for Standard Oil Development Company, after discovering the cause of deposits affecting superchargers of aircraft engines. She set about on a quest of relentless experimenting with various mixtures of staining dyes, oils, and molten wax until, in 1949, she perfected a lipstick that stayed on the lips better than any existing product available at the time.
Knowing she had a winner on her hands, she founded a cosmetics company, Hazel Bishop, Inc, manufacturing non-smear lipstick which was introduced to the public at $1 per tube. It proved a runaway success, with her company’s lipstick sales skyrocketing from $50 thousand in 1950 to $10 million in 1953.
Sadly, she lost control of the company in 1954 after a proxy fight with her stockholders. Not allowing this to get her down, she went on to start a research laboratory, became a stockbroker specialising in cosmetics stocks, and finally, in 1978, a professor at a fashion institute.
The story of lipstick is an interesting one. It’s use dates back to ancient times, with some very, uhm… interesting ingredients used. Ancient Egyptions used a mix of sea-based algae, iodine and bromine, while Cleopatra preferred the hue she got from the deep red pigment in crushed carmine beetles, with crushed ants used as a base. Over the years, ingredients used in lipstick have included beeswax, plant-based stains, fish scales (for a shimmering effect), deer tallow, and castor oil, to name just a few.
Through the ages, the use and acceptability of lipstick varied – in certain eras it was associated with high class and royalty, while other times saw its use confined to actors and prostitutes. Since the early 20th century, however, its use has become generally acceptable among all levels of society.
In a recent research project, studying men’s responses to women in the first 10 seconds after seeing them for the first time, researchers found that men are drawn to the lips more than any other facial feature. The extent to which the lips dominated their attention depended quite strongly on the use of lipstick.
In the case of a woman wearing prominent lipstick, men’s eyes would be fixated on the lips for between 6.7 seconds (pink lipstick) and 7.3 seconds (red lipstick) out of the first 10 seconds – less than one second was spent looking at her eyes, and even less studying her hair. Without make-up, men still paid attention to the lips, but in this case things were more balanced, with the gaze being shared almost equally between the lips, the eyes and the rest of the face.
It was found that men also preferred fuller lips, but the appeal of thin lips increased by 40% once lipstick had been applied.
It seems to me that the simplest solution to hiding any facial flaws is simply an abundant splash of red lipstick – men at least would seem unlikely to look at anything else. However, for women who consider their eyes and the rest of their faces worth looking at may want to hold back on the lipstick!
I cannot help but wonder whether the study focussed on only the first 10 seconds of the men’s gaze, because after this their attention moved to other parts of the anatomy? Perhaps that’s a topic for further research…