Category Archives: Books, T.V. and Movies

Brain Chemistry

I decided to take AP Language and Composition this year, and one of my summer assignments was to write a book report on any of the books in the recommended reading list. I chose the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, because it was one of the most compelling titles out of the bunch. When I started reading, I assumed that this story was a collection of accounts of cases of different mental disorders, which it turned out to be, but I was surprised to find there were some chemistry related aspects to it as well.

In one of the essays, “Witty Ticcy Ray,” Sacks recounted his encounter with a man, named Ray, who had a severe form of Tourette’s, a rare inherited neurological disorder that causes a person to experience frequent “tics” or spasms. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013) These tics result from “an excess of exciter transmitters in the brain, especially the transmitter dopamine (C8H11NO2).” (Sacks, 1985)

500px-Dopamine2.svg

(Harbin, 2008) – skeletal formula dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is any group of chemical agents released by neurons (nerve cells) to stimulate neighboring neurons, allowing impulses to be passed from one cell to the next throughout the nervous system. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013)

Chemical_synapse_schema_cropped

(US National Institutes of Health, 2009) – impulse transmission in synapse

To treat his Tourette’s, his doctor, Sacks, prescribed haloperidol, otherwise known as Haldol, a drug that inhibits the formation of dopamine in his brain.

Haloperidol

(Fvasconcellos, 2007) – Skeletal formula of haloperidol

To me, one of the most interesting parts of the essay was Sack’s juxtaposition of Tourette’s and Parkinson’s disease. Where Tourette’s disease is an excess of dopamine, Parkinson’s disease is a lack of it. Parkinson’s is characterized by “muscle rigidity, difficulty and slowness in movement,” the opposite of the hyperactivity that characterizes Tourette’s. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013) In an analogy, having Tourette’s would be as if running at the speed of a cheetah, and having Parkinson’s would be as if crawling at the pace of a snail (although this reflects the more extreme cases of the diseases).

In both of these diseases, the causes of the abnormal dopamine production seems to originate from the “the thalamus, hypothalamus, limbic system and amygdala, where the basic affective and instinctual determinants of personality are lodged.” (Sacks, 1985)

limbic

(San Diego State University, n.d.) – Brain diagram

The lack of dopamine in a Parkinson’s patient is due to the loss of dopaminergic neurons that normally synthesize and use dopamine to communicate with other neurons in parts of the brain that control and regulate motor function.  To treat Parkinson’s, L-Dopa is given. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013)

An organic compound, L-Dopa (L-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine; C9H11NO4), also known as levodopa, is a precursor (in biochemistry, a compound that participates in a chemical reaction within a cell) to dopamine, and is able to cross the protective blood-brain barrier (a filtering mechanism of the capillaries that carry blood to the brain and spinal cord tissue, blocking the passage of certain substances). (Longe, 2006) Once L-Dopa is in the central nervous system, it is decarboxylated (the removal of the carboxyl (-COOH) group) into dopamine by the enzyme dopa decarboxylase (DDC), a catalyst, and pyridoxal phosphate (vitamin B6). (Porter, 2009) It then increases dopamine concentrations to “awaken” motor senses and restore the physical abilities of the Parkinson’s patients.

dopapathway-1

(NEUROtiker, 2007) – skeletal formulas and reactions of L-Dopa using biosynthesis

Sacks observed that his dopamine-deficient patients, when first introduced to L-Dopa, “were ‘awakened’ from stupor to health” and exhibited “wild excitements, violent impulses, often combined with a weird, antic humor.” (Sacks, 1985)

Although I do not know anyone who has Parkinson’s, I know that there is an estimated 10 million people worldwide that live with Parkinson’s, and approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the United States alone. (Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 2013) Those numbers are scary, but my findings should be able to comfort those who have been affected by Parkinson’s. Whether a friend, family member, or themselves has Parkinson’s, I hope they will feel better knowing that there are methods of treatment that can help Parkinson’s patients lead relatively normal lives.

I did, however,  have a classmate in 8th grade who hit their head on the ground during P.E. and started experiencing restlessness and tics that he could not control. After my research, I can infer that that boy might have hit a certain part of his head to create an excess production of dopamine in his brain, and a possible treatment would be a prescription of Haldol, or another dopamine inhibiting drug.

I used to think that “something just went wrong with the brain” when thinking about neurological disorders, but my findings tell me that they are nothing to be afraid of, and that there are logical reasons behind these diseases. The advancement of medicine has come very far, and in the future I am sure there will be even greater advancements in this field. For example, a research project working on targeting dopamine-controlling drugs to the specific, affected part of the brain is currently underway. For more information on this study , here is a very interesting TedTalk on “brain chemistry.”

References

Human disease. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from http://www.school.ebonline.com/eb/article-63270

Levodopa. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from http://www.school.ebonline.com/eb/article-9472747

Longe, J. L. (2006). The Gale encyclopedia of medicine (3rd ed.). Detroit: Thomson Gale.

Porter, C. (2009, December 2). Chemistry of L-Dopa. Levodopa. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from students.cis.uab.edu/porce/page1.html

Sacks, O. W. (1985). The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales. New York: Summit Books.

Statistics on Parkinson’s. (n.d.). Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from www.pdf.org/en/parkinson_statistics

Tourette syndrome. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from http://www.school.ebonline.com/eb/article-9073058

dopamine. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from http://www.school.ebonline.com/eb/article-9030951

neurotransmitter. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from http://www.school.ebonline.com/eb/article-9055391

Images

San Diego State University (2013). Limbic System. [image online] Available at: http://its.sdsu.edu/multimedia/mathison/images/limbic_system/limbic.gif [Accessed: March 12, 2013].

TedTalks (2013). David Anderson: Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9xJl4S6NsM [Accessed: March 13, 2013].

Unknown. (2013). Dopamine. [image online] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dopamine2.svg [Accessed: March 12, 2013].

Unknown. (2013). Haloperidol. [image online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Haloperidol.svg [Accessed: March 12, 2013].

Unknown. (2013). Catecholamines biosynthesis. [image online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Catecholamines_biosynthesis.svg [Accessed: March 13, 2013].

US National Institutes of Health (2013). Chemical synapse schema cropped. [image online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chemical_synapse_schema_cropped.jpg [Accessed: March 13, 2013].

The Doctor and his blue box

When I was reading Alex’s post about start wars and if a Lightsabers could be made I started to think about my favorite sci-fi shows and if the facts could be true. I am a huge fan of the British tv show Doctor Who, but could a Tardis or sonic screwdriver actually be created.

dr_who

For those of you who don’t know the show, its about a time lord from the planet Galifery, he has two hearts, and can reincarnate 12 times and yes you guessed it he can travel in time. His time machine is the Tardis a blue police box. He always travels with a human companion and together they travel in time and space and save the Earth and the Universe. The show originally aired on November 23, 1963 and is still running today with the 11th Doctor played by Matt Smith. The doctor has fought all types of alien creatures from the Daleks to the Cybermen. Could these ideas be true that arise from the tv show that millions watch.

The Doctor’s Tardis or Time And Relative Dimension In Space, is how he travels throughout time and space to continually save the universe. But could the idea of time travel be real. Professor Kip Thorne and his team from the California Institute of Technology have proposed that an advanced civilization might be able to build a time machine. This idea used the idea of a wormhole (a short tunnel through time and space based on Einstein theory of relativity). Thorne’s theory consisted of two mouths of a wormhole by putting one on a spacecraft and flying it at the speed of light. This connects to Einstein’s theory of relativity that time passes slower for a moving object compared to a stationary one. So therefore the spacecraft travels at 0.9 at the speed of light on Earth two years would have passed. So when you jump out of the wormhole you would arrive a year in the past.

The Tardis

How about the Doctor’s famous sonic screwdriver? His screwdriver projects a concentrated beam of sound that can weld metal and open locks. Professor Douglas Adams, a noise and vibration engineer at Purdue University, Indiana believes that the sonic screwdriver could work, if the sonic screwdriver was short-range. It would work based on the principal of structure-acoustic linear ultrasonics. He says. “You produce a focused column of oscillating air particles (sound waves) that is directed towards an object, say a screw. These oscillating air particles set up high-frequency oscillations in the screw, causing it to rattle along in the direction of the threads to either tighten or loosen.” This technology is being considered to replace the mechanical motor bearings used in computer hard drives. Although according to Professor Adams the Doctor’s exact sonic screwdriver could never be made, “To get a non-contact acoustic device to fit in the doctor’s pocket, we would need to develop a new kind of power source.” Professor Bruce Drinkwater of the University of Bristol states that the ultrasonic sound waves can actually apply forces to objects, “Doctor Who is renowned for bending the rules of science. But technology has radically moved on since the Doc first stepped out of his Tardis in the sixties. Whilst a fully functioning time machine may still be light years away, engineers are already experimenting with ultrasonic waves to move and manipulate small objects.” Engineers are experimenting with rotating ultrasonic force fields could operate as the head of the screwdriver.

The implication of these creations being real would be that civilization from the future might be able to travel in time and that would change the course of history and the world. If we were able to be created even a sonic screwdriver it shows that anything we set our minds to if we work hard enough and there is the resources that you need you can create what you want. “Doctor Who’s adventures have captured the imaginations of millions, young and old. And, however far fetched the Time Lord’s encounters may seem, there are engineers and scientists out there who are using their skills to bring the magic to life.” Professor Bruce Drinkwater.

References:

“BBC – Doctor Who – The Official Site.” BBC – Homepage. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/dw>.

Gribbin, John. “Time Travel for Beginners.” Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Time Travel. Web. <http://www.lifesci.sussex.ac.uk/XXhome/John_Gribbin/timetrav.htm>.

Parsons, Paul. “Who Believes in Who – Telegraph.” Telegraph.co.uk – Telegraph Online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph. 28 Mar. 2008. Web. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3345437/Who-believes-in-who.html>.

Swat, Texas. “Sonic Screwdrivers Using Ultrasonic Force Fields: Science Fiction in the News.” Inventions and Ideas from Science Fiction Books and Movies at Technovelgy.com. Web. <http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Science-Fiction-News.asp?NewsNum=3119>.

Lightsabers, fact or fiction?

If you periodically check Yahoo! like I do you will have noticed recently that there was an article about the resurgence of popularity concerning the Star Wars series as the full series is about to be released on Blu-ray. Well you would have had to have read the article to gain that particle information, but perhaps you saw the small thumbnail of a picture of Darth Vader donning the red light saber and Luke the green one.  It got me thinking could such a sword actually exist or one day be created?

I started researching. I figured that Star Wars with its cult following already had people try or are currently trying to create a real life lightsaber.

The lightsaber, the the primary weapon of the Jedi knights in George Lucas’ Star Wars. Wether a Star Wars devotist or not it cannot be denied that this weapon is pretty awesome by itself. The idea of a sword that can cut through anything, melt anything and deflect shots is sounds king of amazing. Not to mention the awesome colors and glowing effects, compounded with their famed sound effects, who wouldn’t want one?

What George Lucas created with flashlights and animation genius takes a bit more science and thought (although I’m sure its animation was very hard to produce).  The basic principle of the lightsaber is that it is a (light) beam of controlled energy that stops at a certain length and “opens” and detracts with the flick of a switch and is self sustaining (ie. not needing batteries, or recharging).  It’s blade of energy is supposed to be focused from a crystal inside the hilt of the sword.

(Ideally) The cross-section of a lightsaber

However, Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist did introduce to viewers of the show Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible that at the university where he works, City University of New York, they are able to harvest their own crystals. These crystals however, fully able to produce laser beams would not exactly fit the lightsabers description as the beam would be a thin ray of light and not solid. Having a lightsaber that can’t deflect another lightsaber would make it very difficult to Jedi to Sith. Furthermore, the laser beam would become invisible in the daylight or in a room with lights on. Now with this new safety hazard added, having a laser beam from a crystal does not seem plausible for the real construction of a light saber.

However, there have been suggestions to try using plasma. Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is similar to gas except a portion of its particles are ionized. Dr. Kaku in another episode creates a possible design for a lightsaber using very hot plasma. His design allows for a fan at the base of the hilt, that when you turn it on, it sucks up air into the saber and nano tube batteries to super heat it creating very hot plasma. To keep the plasma from oozing out, an electromagnetic coil will be wrapped around the “blade” of the sword. This blade will be made of ceramics so as to withstand the high temperature. Sounds like it could be created, right?

This knowledge opens the gateway for a lightsaber to be constructed, maybe a new age of warfare will erupt with a more “elegant”.  On a more realistic level this design is just an example what else the human race is capable of designing and then constructing. However out-of-this-world the idea is, someone, somewhere, probably a a theoretical scientist, will figure out a way to make it a reality. This can only serve to inspire scientists and future scientists in their work as well as giving them no limit to their imagination and what they might be able to do.

Dr. Kaku’s design was the most plausible that I could find and one of the few that took the design seriously to be realistically created here on earth. The fact that he could come up with a design gave me hope for all of the seemingly supernatural elements or props shown in movies, giving all of the Sci-Fi movies I watch a certain element of reality.

The technology is in our grasp and maybe one day…

we will look like this.

Sources

“Are Lightsabers possible?” physics.org. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

“How Lightsaber Work.” Howstuffworks.com. HowStuffWorks, Inc. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

“Lightsaber.” Chemistry Daily. 4 Jan. 2007. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

“Science Channel Video.” Science Channel. Discovery Communications, LLC. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

Are Laws Better Left Unbroken?

(adapted from my post in the ToK Blog)

As I sat in math class today, Mr. Thiessen made a comment on the famous cartoon character “Bugs Bunny.” He was amused by these shows because they “broke almost every law of physics.” For example, when two characters fall off a plane, they actually accelerate at differing rates over differing time periods, allowing them to take turns to whack each other over the head.

Characters of Looney Toons
Characters of Looney Toons

For a rational thinker, the claim may be hard to comprehend. Mr. Thiessen, in addition to being our math teacher, is a highly-educated physicist. With his academic background, he should be an avid supporter of the laws of physics, and it is, one would believe, clearly out of character that he should love something for breaking those laws.

In fact, the laws of natural sciences are often upheld to authority beyond reproach. In my experience, when one hears a claim or argument that is backed by scientific research or a widely accepted theory, the claim is usually qualified as reliable. Scientific discovery provide the backbone to our urban lives, from everyday utilities such as the lamp or the microwave, to experimental cloning and the Large Hadron Collider.

The Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider

However, Mr. Thiessen’s sentiment is not difficult to understand. Absurd cartoons like “Looney Toons” or “Tom and Jerry” are loved by viewers because of their eccentricity. By breaking these laws of natural sciences (talking animals, anyone?), it had elevated the plot beyond real life, and was appealing to emotion, to the innate desire for adventure inside, I’m sure, the many of us.

Furthermore, the breaking of physics laws provides spectacle, an essential element of drama. This appeal to sense perception through visual and sound elements will invariably raise the audience’s interest.

Tom and Jerry
Tom and Jerry

Of course, laws are important to us. Legal restrictions set forth by the government maintain order in society, so that we don’t have murderers and rapists running free on our streets. The laws of grammar are the backbone to most languages (at least, those that I am aware of), and allow the writing to be structured and comprehensible. Laws of ethics, our moral standards, decide much of our paradigms, and define what we believe we should or should not do.

These laws define an ideal society, at least to those who envisioned these rules. Yet, to me, and I’m sure also to Bugs Bunny, perfection is boring. And sometimes, laws can in fact be broken.

Had the colonists not rebelled against the British Tea Tax and Stamp Taxes, America would have probably remained under colonial rule. We would probably be attending the Shanghai British School. Some of the most acclaimed writers and poets, by the likes of Langston Hughes or Franz Kafka, have often broken the rules of grammar in their writing. Moral standards are more constant, and are regarded as our fundamental principles, but that doesn’t mean they are invincible to change. We don’t still cut off the noses of our infidel wives, do we?

Thinking Outside the Box
Thinking Outside the Box

We need not disregard all laws and plunge into anarchy, but we need realize that sometimes, it’s fine to break the laws. So, let’s sit back, relax, and watch Bugs Bunny shatter the accomplishments of brilliant physicists into many, many pieces.

Could you be the next Claire Bennet?

heroes2A few days ago, I was watching an old Heroes episode that dealt with one of its protagonist’s powers- cellular regeneration. For those of you who haven’t heard of Heroes or really watched much of it, the show is basically about a group of people who realize they have powers (like the ability to fly or read minds, for example) and are trying to figure out how to save the world/take over it using those powers. Though its main purpose is entertainment, the show brings up several implications concerning the use of the characters’ powers. The power that really interests me is cellular regeneration, belonging to Claire Bennet. On multiple occasions, she’s hunted for her blood, which when injected into someone else can heal him/her completely. Sometimes, though, she’s the one offering her blood in the first place. In the episode I watched, she was considering the possibility of re-growing limbs or organs to help someone who had lost theirs.
At first that sounded like a great plan to me, but after taking a closer look, I realized there was more to the issue. If she somehow managed to grow a heart over and over again, who would she give the heart to? Maybe it could be run like regular transplants, with a waiting list. But this would be a different situation- no one had to die to donate this heart. From the point of view of the person in need of a heart, getting it from her would seem less of a sacrifice, which would probably lead to more tension between all the people waiting to get a heart. But this would all be assuming that she publicized her ability to begin with.
As fictional as this show is, these implications might actually have to be taken into consideration in the future. At present, cellular regeneration is something lizards are capable of, as mentioned in the show I watched. According to a website I found with some basic information about lizards, their regenerative ability is a means of defense.

While the predator eats the lizards tail, the lizard escapes and its tail will eventually re-grow. Many lizards are also capable of the regeneration of lost limbs meaning that if the lizard loses a limb through conflict with a predator, it will grow back just like their tails

They can grow tails and even limbs back, and that’s about it. It would just be a matter of getting them to do the same for organs. And eventually that could mean synthesizing a similar method for humans.
Right there the amount of implications would skyrocket. Questions would arise, like who’s going to sit there and re-grow organs? As weird as it sounds, a job might even be created out of it. And then if it became safe and accessible for a sufficient amount of people, how would it influence population figures?
More realistic to us at the moment, though, was a website I found that discussed “regeneration of the pancreatic β cell”.

To be honest, I didn’t completely understand everything the site talked about, mainly because of the terms it used and because of my lack of experience studying biology. Still, from what I gathered, I realized that it might just be possible to achieve cellular regeneration on a larger scale in the future. If we do, it will mean facing implications that today seem relevant only in a fictional setting.

THE ISLAND

In reading JD’s post on the movie GATTACA, I’ll admit, I was excited. GATTACA explores genetic modification. The movie that inspired this reply is entitled “The Island” and explores the idea of cloning in a modern society.

The Island begins by telling the story of the destruction of human race by a terrible virus. The remaining humans now live in what appears to be a utopian yet contained environment. They eagerly await the opportunity to journey to “The Island”, the last uncontaminated spot on earth. Licoln-Delta-Six (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan-Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansen), members of this society escape and discover that they are actually clones of various rich society members living in a “real world” very much like ours today. They are being grown and harvested, worth very much more to the Company dead than alive.

Ewan McGregor an Scarlett Johanssen in

This type of movie is exactly what makes genetic science so exciting for me. Now not only do humans imagine implications of cloning and genetic modification, as they have for a century, but with today’s scientific knowledge can conceivably see these ideas become a reality. All of a sudden a movie is different. Even now scientists are able to make slight modifications in an unborn child swimming in a Petri dish, creating perhaps the perfect match for a sick sibling, and they have cloned a sheep successfully. Thus that crazy idea of cloning and “perfect” people, is given a scary hue of not-quite imagination.

Dolly the sheep

By way of examining the implications of this idea we will hence forth imagine ourselves clones. I am Echo-Alpha-Three, and you reader will be Charlie-Bravo-Four. I am the clone of the Queen of England, and you of Barack Obama. The Queen of England develops heart trouble. Barack Obama, is affected with liver trouble. Both of these call up the Company requesting that their matching donors/clones have their heart and liver removed so that they might continue to live happy lives.

As clones natural humans might view us as inferior and therefore easily condone our sacrifice in order to ensure that this man and woman continue to live. However a clone is a human being, exactly the same, except the unnatural birth and development inside a simulated/replacement womb. Doesn’t this then, as humans, violate more of our rights than you can shake a stick at? The ethical and moral implications of the idea are so staggering, that one can barely comprehend them. And we haven’t even begun to touch the tip of the iceberg.

This is scary to us because of the age-old human fear of the unknown. We won’t know, until it happens, what the implications of cloning and/or genetic modification in humans is, until we have tried. Although we can be sure that they will be far-reaching.

For now though, an idea that involves the manipulation of science within human grasp and its integration in our present society, makes for a very exciting movie!

GATTACA

GATTACA

Guanine. Adenine. Thymine. Cytosine.

We all share these four nucleotide bases within our DNA. They have the ability to make each of us unique and, in “the not-too-distant future”, to make each of us imperfect. In this future, genetic engineering has enabled us to create children genetically-superior to ourselves. They contain the best of the human race within themselves, a product of their modified DNA. And within this new world, humanity finds once again a GATTACA DVDway to discriminate, to find error in perfection. A new breed of prejudice evolves, based not on nationality or culture, but on genetic composition.

The movie’s protagonist, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), is a man of natural birth. To reach outer space and fulfill his lifetime goal, he must deny the restrictions placed upon him by society as an onset of his natural genetic makeup. To do this, he assumes the identity of Jerome (Jude Law), someone genetically-superior to himself, and, by borrowing Jerome’s DNA, becomes a “borrowed ladder”. Jerome, as Vincent describes him, “never suffered from the routine discrimination of utero, fake birth, or invalid as we were called – a valid, a vitro, a made-man, he suffered under a different burden, the burden of perfection.” Now on a fairer playing field, Vincent faces the daunting task of proving his worth as an individual while disguising his true identity. Not an easy task, especially when you consider that “we all shed 500 million cells a day.”

Here’s a short taste of the struggle within the movie:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/eP-aVYuVVBE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Eugenics, the acceleration of human evolution by improving genetic make-ups, has been hotly disputed for quite some time. Therefore, the movie inspired much bioethical controversy following its release in 1997. The fictional representation of a futuristic society fraught with such limitations is thought-provoking, if not disturbing; humanity has reached new heights, but at what cost? On one hand, disease and disabilities are eradicated, improving standards of living. But on the other hand, there is a loss of natural diversity. And, if you believe in genetic determinism, the concept that behavior and personality are the results of one’s genome, you must decide for yourself whether such individualistic characteristics are worth controlling.

Eugenics, in my opinion, is beneficial in that it has the capability of improving one’s standard of living, even despite the adverse effects it may have. However, as to whether I believe in genetic determinism or not, I am undecided. Nevertheless, GATTACA is a stimulating presentation as to the moral duality of the genetic advancement argument. I definitely urge you to see it if you have not as it is truly a memorable and fascinating film, with the right amount of underlying ethics.

I leave you now with one of Vincent’s most touching lines:

For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess: I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving … maybe I’m going home.”

Is the ‘test of time’ a valid ‘test of truth’?

To begin with, I wish every reader a happy new year. Hope you have plans to do greater things than I could ever think of doing…and let’s hope that sometime during the year, you’ll actually do them. Anyway, technological difficulties kept this waiting. To compensate for its lateness, I’ll be more prolific on Chemical Paradigms in the future (A new year resolution). Moving on… 

The first picture I find on Google Images when I type in the keyword

Truth and the criteria of truth is a matter that is often analyzed in the doctrine of Epistemology. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge, its limitations and how knowledge differs from belief and other notions. Students and teachers participating in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program would be more familiar with its colloquialism TOK, otherwise known as “theory of knowledge”. This article will use some concepts of Epistemology on truth to analyze the validity of the so called, ‘test of time’. For more information on this particular branch of philosophy feel free to read the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Epistemology.

Let us clarify what is meant by the ‘test of time’. In this article, ‘standing (or enduring) the test of time’ refers to an idea or a concept’s resilience to conceding to other ideas or concepts upon the same issue. For example, the Kinetic theory in Chemistry explains the behavior of gas particles in relation to the established empirical Ideal Gas Laws. While it is true that there have been many advances made in the explanation provided by this theory since its proposal in 1740 (by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli), it has never been completely replaced by an opposing theory and hence, has withstood the test of time.

Another example of this would be Sir Issac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, which was first included in his work Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica (published in 1687).

The Law of Universal Gravitation “proposes that the attractive force between two point masses is given by the formula:

“where m1 and m2 are the masses of the attracting bodies, r the separation between them and G…called Newton’s constant of universal gravitation” (taken from Physics for the IB Diploma, Tsokos, 5th Edition).

However, the variable “G” or “Newton’s constant of universal gravitation” had not been calculated at the time of Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica. This constant had been calculated through British scientist Henry Cavendish’s (also noted for his discovery of hydrogen, which will be the point of discussion in a future article) torsion balance experiment (aptly named the Cavendish experiment).Diagram of the Michell-Cavendish Torsion balance experiment. The torsion balance experiment’s purpose was to calculate the density of the Earth, however, it resulted in the unintentional calculation of “G”. If you are interested in a modernized version of the experiment, feel free to visit the following website. Note, that Cavendish performed this experiment 111 years after the publication of  Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica.

Another thing to note was that Newton had made some reservations on the law. He mentioned in a letter to Richard Bentley (a theologian at Trinity College during Newton’s time) that:

That one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one another, is to me so great an absurdity that, I believe, no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”

This supports the fact that Newton was unable to determine what the mediator of gravity was. He was unconvinced that it was simply an “action at a distance”; that gravity acts instantaneously regardless of distance. In the second edition of  Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica, Newton wrote:

I have not yet been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena and I feign no hypotheses… It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained, and that it abundantly serves to account for all the motions of celestial bodies.”

Newton’s law was superseded by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity (developed between 1907-1915, which is about 220-228 years after the publication of Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica), which attributes gravity to the curvature of spacetime. The basis of the theory is that gravitational attraction between two masses is not the result of an attractive force (as per Newton’s explanation), rather it is the warping of space and time by the two masses that causes the motion. This explains a wide range of phenomena such as gravitational waves, gravitational lensing and gravitational time dilation, which further our understanding of certain astronomical phenomena such as black holes and is also the framework for the Big Bang Theory. General relativity can be used for practical situations too and can attain results of a higher degree of precision. However, it should be noted that Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation is still widely used for more ‘down-to-earth’ (forgive the pun) situations for its simplicity and so has arguably endured the ‘test of time’.

(Author’s note: Due to the complexity of theory, the author will recommend several websites and books to refer to at the end of the article and forgo the explanation here. If readers have a concise explanation, please include it in the comments area. Thank you very much for your cooperation)

In both cases (that of Kinetic Theory and the Law of Universal Gravitation), it can be seen that over time (may it be days, months, years or even centuries) that ‘advancements’ have been made to the laws/theories in order for them to explain a wider range of phenomena. It is important. however, to distinguish between the case of the Law of Universal Gravitation and a law/theory that has failed the test of time.

An example of a law/theory that has failed the test of time would be Ptolemy’s Geocentric model of the Universe. Ptolemy’s Geocentric model, which was accepted for hundreds of years, was replaced by the Coppernicus’ Heliocentric model of the Universe that was supported by the observations of Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. The Geocentric model no longer has any applications (except for literature), while the Law of Universal Gravitation may still be used. Perhaps someday, we will no longer have a need for the Law of Universal Gravitation and at that point, it would have failed the test of time.

Now, for the moment of truth (apologies for the pun), to confirm the validity of the ‘test of time’. By Epistemological principles, we find that the ‘test of time’ is not a ‘test of truth’.

The ‘test of time’ is based around the belief that over time in any given idea or concept, logical flaws will be found for ideas or concepts that are not true and those that are true will have no negative change in validity. However, consider the case with Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe. We know that over time it was proven to have flaws and eventually considered not true. However, we must ask why it took so long for people to realize that Ptolemy’s model was incorrect.

Was it because there wasn’t sufficient technology to determine otherwise? This may be part of the case as the first instances of empirical evidence against Ptolemy only appeared in the 1200s during the “Maragha Revolution”. In his book, Kitab Nihayat al-Sul fi Tashih al-Usul (A Final Inquiry Concerning the Rectification of Planetary Theory), Ibn Al-Shatir (an astronomer from the Damascus Maragheh observatory) provided mathematical evidence against the Ptoleamic model. His calculations for moon are said to be almost identical to that of Coppernicus, who we now acclaim for his heliocentirc model.

Was it because there was some external body preventing the change in ‘truth’? This case is probably closer to the reality of the situation. The Ptolemaic model was well accepted by the ancient world. Particularly by the church, who had integrated the Ptolemaic model into their teachings. A notable interference by them and the progression of ideas would be in the Galileo affair. With the publication of his book Siderus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), Galileo had mentioned many instances of heavenly imperfection through telescopic observations. These included the presence of mountains on the moon, Jupiter having moons, phases of Venus and sunspots. This lead to Galileo’s house arrest and the burning of several other Coppernicians at stake in parallel instances of the matter. Nonetheless, this was a turning point in scientific history and eventually led to the acceptance of the Coppernician model with Kepler. Mind you, it was not only the church who were responsible for the restriction of scientific development. In fact, in the case of Coppernicus, certain influential members of the church (such as Pope Clement VII, Archbishop of Capua Nicholas Schonberg, and several other cardinals) were supportive of the idea. Rather, it was the public and the critics of educated society, that prevented Coppernicus from publishing his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly spheres) until the day of his death.

So, this shows how possible intervention from other parties can warp our perception of what is true, which has been the case in other fields of study, not exclusively science. Going back to the idea of the ‘test of time’, a ‘test of time’ is meaningless if such an administration is put into place. If the church or ,in more recent years, the media enforced more stringent measures, it is possible that instead of moving progressively towards the truth, we would be diverging into fallacy, which work against the intention of a ‘test of time’ that intends to increase validity of true ideas over time.

To conclude, bring back your attention to the cartoon at the very beginning of the article. Given that situation, will the ‘test of time’ work? Is there a better way to ensure that external administrations don’t warp the ‘truth’ to their favor so that we can progressively move on to a better or worse future? I say worse because that is a possibility. Remember, the truth will not always be to mankind’s favor.

Recommended websites:

On epistemology;

On general and special relativity;

Recommended reading:

On general and special relativity;

  • Relativity by Albert Einstein (Authorized translation by Robert W. Lawson)

The Little Boy and the Fat Man – chemistry behind the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

First of all, Merry Christmas!
I realize that perhaps a slightly lighter topic would better accompany the joyful atmosphere at this time of year, however (unfortunately) Christmas Dinnerproving or disproving the existence of Santa Claus or  providing a scientific explanation of why Rudolf has a red nose does not appeal to me as a particular area of interest. Hence, if you are reading this with a candy cane in your mouth, unwrapping your presents and reminiscing about the turkey you had last night (something I’d rather be doing right now), feel free to turn away and indulge in the holiday joy.

My investigation was inspired by the book Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, which I finished reading earlier today (good book, great author). At the conclusion of the plot, specialists at the National Security Agency prevented the leaking of America’s top secrets to hackers, terrorists and various governments worldwide by decoding a secret key. They discovered a clue to the key, which states: “[the] Prime difference between elements responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki”The answer was 3, the difference of neutrons between two isotopes of Uranium: 238 and 235. These two isotopes were used to fuel the two atomic bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, which, as we know, bombed the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the conclusion of World War II.

Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

The bombs were the brainchildren of the Manhattan Project, a top secret project involving brilliant scientists like Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. But they were more than the fruits of a scientific discovery. What followed the bombings was a catastrophe and a Revolution. The bombs were the direct killers of over 200,000 people, important factors to concluding the largest war so-far in human history, and the catalysts to a new world order. But right now, we will limit our scopes, and take a sneak peek at the science involved in the making of atomic weapons.

Nagasaki

In reality, the fissile which fueled the Fat Man was Plutonium 239, although Uranium 238 did surround the material. A fissile is an isotope of an element whose nucleus will split upon being hit by a neutron in a spontaneous process when a critical mass is formed. The fissle were isolated from solid uranium tetraflouride and plutonium nitrate by chemists under the leadership of Oppenheimer, as shown by the chart below:

Isolation of U-235 and Pu-239

Producing the bomb required scientific calculations. For example, when producing the Little Boy, scientists wanted to determine how many fissile of U-235 were required for the detonation. According to Dr. Frank Settle of Washington and Lee University, the following calculations took place (information taken from here):

A 20-kiloton explosion, equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, was desired. To find the energy released, the unit was converted to joules:

  •          20 kilotons TNT = 1 x 1013 cal = 8.4 x 10 13 joules

Each fission (the process of splitting an atom) produced 3.2 x 10-11 joules. The total energy is divided by the energy produced by each fission to find the number of fissions (N) required:

    • N = (8.4 x 1013 joules)/(3.2 x 10-11joules per fission) = 2.6 x 1024 fissions

2.6 x 1024 fissions required the same amount of atoms of U-235. The number of moles of U-235 isotopes required was determined using Avogadro’s number,  6.02 x 1023:

    • moles235 = 2.6 x 1024 atoms(1 mole U-235/6.02 x 1023 atoms) = 4.3 moles U-235

Total mass=number of moles x mass per mole. Also, The weapon had a 10% efficiency. Hence,the final amount is approximately:

    • m235 = [4.3 moles (235 g/mole)]/0.10
  •                       = 10kg of U-235

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