Archive for December, 2011


Mysterious Metallic Objects

It’s December 22, 2011, just past the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere… and T-minus 364 days to the Mayan apocalypse if you believe in that sort of thing. I don’t, but I do find it fun to follow (barring any mass hysteria as the day approaches, of course). There are of course some interesting coincidences as the day draws nearer: weird global weather, worldwide economic crisis and social unrest, and these small metallic objects that have been falling to Earth from space for the last 20 years.

What? You don’t know about them?

I didn’t either until today. Popular Science has an article, Mysterious Metallic Space Ball Falls to Earth in Africa, Baffling Authorities (with some pretty funny comments) based on one from PhysOrg. It’s probably space junk, but what interested me was that it’s not the first. “Several such balls have dropped in southern Africa, Australia and Latin America in the past twenty years, authorities found in an Internet search.” Universe Today has pictures of others. If NASA and the ESA don’t know what it is, then maybe military space junk.

(Or aliens.)

Discovery identifies the objects as probably COPVs, used to store gases under pressure in a space environment. Space junk is not as much fun as possible alien pods, but becoming more and more of a serious issue in proportion to our ever-expanding need for communications and technology.

Humans are messy creatures. But maybe next December 21 will take care of that. 😉

This week, CERN, home of the LHC, held a press conference, which caused a great big stir, announced in advance, that they are “pretty sure but not certain” that they found evidence of the Higgs boson.

I understand that this was announcing some possible findings, and that it was basically presenting progress in order to bargain for more funding.  And I understand that worldwide mainstream media attention may assist that goal.  But I still think it was ridiculous to make such a big pronouncement over basically nothing at all.

Why? A few reasons.

This was probably the latest big evening-news-making scientific press release since the “alien” arsenic life form last year (alien as in unusual or different, not extraterrestrial).  Which also turned out to be a whole-lotta nuthin’, a premature announcement over findings that were exciting to scientists, a step in the right direction possibly a harbinger to something more definitive in the future, but nevertheless nothing definitive.  I was so excited by headlines that day, that an alien life form had been discovered, (“NASA Unveils Arsenic Life Form“, etc.) that I gasped, squealed, and excitedly shared it with all my co-workers.  Later in the day upon discovering these headlines, many from reputable sources that had been misguided (or incorrectly rephrased their headlines for space constraints) were false, I had to retract my workplace excitement, and clarify that the findings were still very controversial. (Like with the Martian life.)

And don’t get me wrong, I love CERN and the LHC and the search for the Higgs.  Upon recently talking about it excitedly, I was schooled by a physicist who believes it’s a waste of immense amounts of funding that could be going toward other more worthy projects that are more “sure bets.”  I could understand his point of view but ultimately was not swayed.  I’ve loved the LHC ever since I heard that turning it on could possibly create tiny black holes that could swallow up the Earth (come on, that is sci-fi gold!).  Such rumors can ignite people’s interest in what is otherwise indigestible science for the lay person.

However in the case of the Higgs, the arsenic life, and the Martian meteorite, when full-on press conferences are called and NASA, an extremely trusted institution in the world’s psyche, is involved, it adds much more credence. And to get people hyped up over what is ultimately nothing, leaves them highly disappointed.  This sort of premature hype is akin to the media announcing election results before they are definitive, or reporting on breaking news before they have the full story with all the facts.  It is misleading the public.  Disappoint them too many times, and you have the boy who cried wolf — people won’t believe forthcoming announcements are going to amount to much.  They may lose interest.  This in a time of what I consider to be already a decline in science in the United States (more on that in my next blog post).  And I believe this ultimately does science a disservice.

Migraineur

Among other things, I am a migraineur.  Which is a cool, lovely-sounding French name for “person who gets migraine headaches.”

I know several people who say they get migraine headaches.  I’m not sure all of them do.  Migraines are different for each person, as different as fingerprints, but they are more than simply a very bad headache.

I am one of the 20-30% of “classic” migraine sufferers who get an aura before the headache.  The aura is a visual disturbance that usually begins in the peripheral vision and closes in, or sweeps by the field of vision.  Meaning, yes, you see things. I got my first one when I was 10 years old, and I was terrified; I thought I was going blind.

The aura manifests differently for different people, but what I see is closest to this:

migraine aura

A migraine aura

My auras start as a tiny spot in my field of vision, usually the lower-left.  It’s a blind spot with flashing lights in it. If you have never experienced one, the closest I can describe it is when you squeeze your eyes shut really tightly and you start to see a light pattern.  This is similar, but not exact.   My little flashing spot usually grows in size and shape, featuring the zig-zag flashing lights pattern (or scintillating scotoma), sometimes growing into a crescent shape as the above image, but not always.   It also progresses across the field of vision in some direction.  I’ve heard some people’s auras are black and white; mine are in color, but usually only warm colors – red, orange and yellow, and white.  The aura is opaque; you cannot see through it, and worst of all, for me, it is there whether your eyes are open or closed, so you cannot escape it, even by lying down with your eyes closed, or by dimming the room. Other people have blurred or blacked-out areas in their field of vision, or even a kaleidoscope effect.  Examples of migraine art can demonstrate how many different manifestations there are.

For me, the aura is a good thing.  It is a warning sign for me to quickly take some pain medication to stave off the excruciating headache, which I can usually do with 4 ibuprofen.  Others are not so lucky.

Migraines can be caused by any number of triggers.  The most common ones are wine, chocolate, aged cheese, MSG, aspartame (i.e., Equal), stress, bright lights, shift work changes, weather changes and hormones.  My triggers are usually stress, a change in barometric pressure (before a thunderstorm), or hormonal changes.  Caffeine overuse and withdrawal can trigger them too, although caffeine itself can sometimes help treat the migraine (Excedrin Migraine contains caffeine). Knowing your triggers can help with prevention.

I’m also lucky in that I don’t get them very frequently — a few times a year, which does not really warrant a specific migraine medication.  Some people can get them weekly or even daily, and they can last for days at a time, which can be utterly debilitating to the point of disability.

While migraines are horribly painful and can severely affect quality of life, I find them somewhat fascinating in terms of the brain and neurology. There is evidence that they are related to epileptic seizures.  There are actually four distinct phases of a migraine, and people can have symptoms both before and after the actual headache. Knowing the symptoms during the prodrome phase can also aid prevention or treatment, especially if you have a child who suffers from them.

There is also likely a hereditary component to migraines.  My grandmother had them, my two sisters get them, and I only recently learned my mother gets them as well — but she gets ocular migraines: the aura without the headache.  Interestingly in our family it seems to be only the women that get them, although migraines are usually more common in women than men.

Though it may be little solace, migraineurs are in good company.  Many famous people have been migraine sufferers, and the conditionhas perhaps influenced their creativity at times: painters Vincent Van Gogh, George Seurat, and Claude Monet; writers Virginia Woolfe, Cervantes and Lewis Carroll; leaders Thomas Jefferson, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Mary Todd Lincoln; Joan of Arc and Charles Darwin; scholars Sigmund Freud and Frederich Nietzsche; and entertainers Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Carly Simon, among countless others.

There are endless resources on the internet about migraines that can help you, if you suffer from them, or know someone who does.