Give Mother Nature Some Laws Of Physics And Some Stardust, And You Get A Poorly Designed Human

Give Mother Nature Some Laws Of Physics And Some Stardust, And You Get A Poorly Designed Human

Mother Nature Dressed For Work

Both secular and religious people generally believe everything is made of stardust. (e.g., Christians cite Genesis 3:19 and Ecclesiastes 3:20). As far back in time as we can probe, we find mostly hydrogen and helium being manipulated by the laws of physics. Today hydrogen and helium make up 99% of the matter in the universe. As the universe aged and cooled, subatomic particles coalesced into the elements displayed in the periodic table. Gravity lumped various elements together forming the dust that in turn evolved into our cosmos. In other words, everything in our universe is made of stardust.

Every day more than 50 tons of new stardust falls to earth. This stardust, and that which previously rained on the earth, replenishes the cells in our body throughout our lives. For example, the outer layer of our skin is replaced every month or so, and our entire skin is replaced about once a year. Most cells in the body have their own life span and are replaced by the elements of stardust as we grow new cells; an exception being the neurons in the cerebral cortex which are not replaced as they die.

The process of manipulating stardust to keep us, the most influential species on earth, alive and functioning for up to a century, is incomprehensibly complex. Yet this same process produced one of the most poorly designed mammals in existence; apparently we humans are still a work in progress. Here are a few examples of our present design flaws.

1) Most mammals give birth pushing their young directly through a reasonably straight birth canal. Because humans gained a survival advantage by freeing up our forelimbs to carry and use tools and otherwise manipulate the world “at hand” we began to walk upright creating a sharp bend in the birth canal. To make the birth process even more difficult, the large brain we required to employ our tools and outsmart our predators (many of whom carried their tools in their strong jaws) we need to force babies out through a narrow bend in the pelvis. Thankfully Mother Nature assigned this task to women whom, she decided, are more capable of suffering than are men.

2) Mother Nature took a few evolutionary shortcuts. For example, she decided to make use of the tube that empties men’s bladders to also expel semen rather than go to the trouble of creating a second single purpose tube. She tried to compensate by making urine sterile but botched that as well -- modern-day scientific experiments have dispelled that myth.

3) Our heat regulators are not well thought out. Most mammals have some protection against the elements but we need to walk upright carrying our tools around to kill unfortunate mammals for their fur. In addition, we evacuate heat by sweating much more than other mammals making water a more critical resource than the food we hunt.

4) Many animals have two or three sets of eyelids, one to shut the light out and another protective transparent set of eyelids to keep dust and water out. An owl has three eyelids: one for blinking, one for sleeping, and one to clear and moisten the eye to keep it healthy.   We have one eyelid and suffer more eye problems and poorer vision as a result.

5) We and other vertebrates share some disadvantages such as a blind spot in our sight. This requires a more advanced brain to fill in visual blanks than, say an octopus, which has no blind spot. And Mother Nature gave other four-legged vertebrates the advantage of fewer back problems but deprived us the same advantage by forcing us to walk upright and decades of compressing cartilage in our spines. I give her credit for equipping back surgeons with the brains and talent to fix the problem in a few of us.

If you are listening, Mother Nature, please fix these things in my next incarnation; or are you going to deprive me of that too?

Thai Cave Postscript: An Australian Doctor Was The Last Person To Exit The Cave

Inside The Thai Cave

A 53-year-old anesthetist from Adelaide, Australia was reported to be the last person to emerge from the cave after all 12 boys from the Wild Boar soccer team, their coach, and Thai rescue divers exited the cave.

Dr. Richard Harris is a consultant working as head of retrieval co-ordination for MedSTAR, the emergency medical retrieval service in Adelaide, South Australia (SA). MedSTAR responds to trauma and other emergencies throughout SA. MedSTAR responders have access to six Motor Accident Commission (MAC) helicopters, several all-wheel-drive ambulances, and fixed-wing aircraft (under contract with Royal Flying Doctor Service).

Dr. Richard Harris
Dr. Harris was to have been on holiday cave diving in Western Australia when British divers telephoned him with an urgent request to fly to Thailand to help rescue a dozen members of the Wild Boar soccer team, aged 11 to 16,  and their coach from a flooded cave. With 30 years of diving experience and many risky successful rescues to his credit, he was the British divers' first choice to aid in the rescue attempt. He was called after a volunteer Thai diver died in the cave during an initial rescue attempt.

Agnes Milowka
Seven years ago, South Australian police had called Dr. Harris to recover the body of his close friend, Agnes Milowka, a professional diver who worked as a stunt diver in the film Sanctum and was featured in diving documentaries.  Dr. Harris was called to help with the recovery because of the complexity of the cave and extreme challenges that caused Ms. Milowka to run out of air, unable to escape from a four-mile stretch of tangled underwater passages.

After arriving at the remote cave entrance in Thailand, Dr. Harris spent hours navigating the cave's narrow passages (one only 15 inches wide) and swift currents to join the stranded boys. He assessed the health and condition of each boy to determine the order in which they should be rescued. His advice reversed the initial plan to send the strongest boys first. He selected four of the most vulnerable boys to go out in the first phase of the rescue; the stronger boys would be sent out in subsequent phases of the rescue during the following days. In retrospect, it was a wise decision; all were successfully rescued against enormous odds. Dr. Harris was the last person to leave the cave.

Note: I first became aware of Dr. Harris and his role in the rescue when our son, Branden Emmerson, an anesthetist in Adelaide, sent me an email about his own pending temporary assignment with MedSTAR. Dr. Harris was to be developing the roster (the work schedule of MedSTAR staff) that would include Branden as a new staff member. Branden is looking forward to working with Dr. Harris and the rest of the MedSTAR team.

What's Happens To Your Brain When You're Trapped In A Dark Cave?

What's Happens To Your Brain When You're Trapped In  A Dark Cave?

Thinking about the soccer team trapped in a dark cave, perhaps for weeks or even months, I recalled being fascinated by research on light deprivation and other effects of isolation during my brief time as a sophomore psychology major. I discovered much has been learned in the intervening years. Here is a summary.

Biological Effects

Thai Coach and Team Members
Norepi­nephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are necessary for us to experience pleasure, emotion, and cognition. These neurotransmitters are produced by neurons that require light to remain healthy and survive. As these neurons decay, we become depressed and can develop psychotic disorders. Our circadian rhythm is distorted; there are reports of people sleeping 30 hours and reporting they just took a brief nap. 

Hallucinations are common as the brain, lacking external stimuli, produces its own stimulation. BBC produced several videos of people experiencing hallucinations during 48 hours in darkness. 

After about three weeks without light, many people experience psychogenic death and are at risk of committing suicide. 

In 1972 Michel Siffre spent six months in a cave without natural light. He did have artificial light, a tent on a wooden platform, and other support that would be available during space travel (the purpose of the NASA-sponsored experiment). The experiment was designed to eliminate any clues about the passage of time to determine what happens to one's biorhythms in the absence of external markers of the passage of time.

Of course, sleep cycles became erratic as expected but other effects were more surprising. His psychological state greatly deteriorated and he was deterred from suicide only by concern for its effect on his survivors. During his third month, his short term memory had deteriorated so much that he forgot things in mere seconds. Years after the experiment Siffre still had lapses of memory and his eyesight remained deteriorated. It's not clear that he ever fully recovered from the ordeal.

Literally, all the Chilean miners trapped underground for more than two months in 2010 suffered from PTSD. Some of the miners offered advice to the soccer team awaiting rescue: Stay hopeful, maintain a positive attitude, don't dwell on the negative prospects, maintain a routine organizing your resources, and standing guard while others sleep. Several miners commended the soccer coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, for leading meditation sessions and encouraging the team to be optimistic. 

Groups of stranded people trapped without natural light have difficulties not affecting individuals trapped alone. The group must maintain a common circadian rhythm. When the sleep cycles of people in a group drift apart, individual sleep can be disrupted increasing interpersonal conflict, exacerbate stress, and degrades the immune system encouraging infections and illness (recall that the soccer team lived nine days in total darkness prior to being discovered).

As I write this, five people are still in the cave with monsoon rains building. News reports are inconsistent regarding the coach; some sources say the coach was among the first four rescued due to his weak condition, other sources say he is one of the five yet to be rescued. The identity of the rescued individuals has not been officially released. 

It is possible that one or more of the remaining individuals may need to rely on an alternative means of rescue. Among the prospects are Elon Musk's drilling efforts, his rush to fabricate a small submarine pod using parts from a Falcon 9 -- an oxygen transfer tube, and an inflatable tube that could be threaded through the narrow passages. 

Tiny Passages Complicate the Rescue

Among the alternatives, the small submarine gets my bet as an alternative backup rescue device. The pod has handles on the front and rear, is light enough to be carried when free from the water, is small enough to navigate the cave, and is large enough to accommodate the team members (I was unable to determine if it is a prospective solution for the coach should he still be in the cave).



Human Conversations With Animals

Human Conversations With Animals

A conversation with a non-human animal occurs when the animal understands both its own communication and that of the human. For example, a dog can be taught by repetition to respond to a command by barking twice to get a treat. This conditioned response does not entail the dog's understanding of the meaning of the command, "bark twice"; the dog simply associates its response with a treat.

A female lowland gorilla named Koko just died at age 46. Koko's ability to communicate with humans using a modified version of sign language including, her own signing creations, is unmatched among non-human animals. She knew more than 2000 English words and more than 1000 hand signals. Koko's ability to communicate about past and present events objects not present, and her ability to improvise with language demonstrated she likely understood the meaning of her communications. For example, Koko had not been taught the word for a ring. Upon seeing a ring on a finger she signed "finger bracelet". Although a few skeptical experts claim this event and others like it might be due to the carer's anthropomorphic biases, most conclude Koko understood what she intended to communicate most of the time.

Koko With Her Kitten
 Koko became especially attracted to kittens; her fascination with them began with books. When she was young her favorite two books were The Three Little Kittens and Puss 'n' Boots. Knowing her affinity for kittens, she was given a toy kitten but rejected it signing "sad". On her next birthday, Koko was delighted to pick a kitten out of an abandoned litter. She named the little furball "All Ball" and treated it as if it were her own baby. One day Koko's carer discovered a sink torn from the wall. When confronted about it, Koko signed "kitten bad" and "cat did it" pointing to All Ball and to the sink.

Considering a large number of examples like these, I personally side with the majority of experts who believe Koko engaged in two-way human conversations.

Another primate, a bonobo named Kanzi, became famous for his ability to communicate with lexigrams (symbols associated with specific words).  Kanzi's mother regularly was being coaxed to use symbols to communicate but failed to learn. Kanzi playing in the background was seemingly oblivious to the lessons until one day he spontaneously began using the language; he was the first non-human primate to learn a language naturally rather than through training. He also was the first bonobo to learn to methodically communicate with humans.

In addition to communicating with 348 lexigrams, Kanzi learned to respond to spoken English. In one experiment, Kanzi was matched with a two-year-old human named Alia. Each was given 660 spoken instructions to interact in specific ways with familiar objects. Kanzi's success rate was 74%, Alia's was 65%.

Kanzi groups two or more words to express himself. During an outdoor excursion, Kanzi touched symbols for "marshmallow” and "fire.“ He then broke sticks, used matches to start a fire, and roasted marshmallows. Kanzi learned about 3000 spoken words, a third more than Koko. He also understood more spoken words than the symbols he used. Kanzi could comprehend and act on complex combinations of words spoken like"take the TV outdoors."

While doing research for this article, I was most impressed by the fact that Kanzi demonstrated that bonobos could converse with one another in their own language. In one experiment Kanzi and his sister were placed in separate rooms where they could hear, but could not see, each other. Kanzi was told that he could have yogurt if he informed his sister. Kanzi made a specific bonobo sound. His sister vocally responded with the same sound and selected the yogurt lexicon.  

Apes clearly are capable of communicating much more than we once believed. But their communications are largely self-centered. For example, many (if not most) experts claim no ape (or another non-human) has ever spontaneously asked a question or expressed an unsolicited opinion. If this is true (and I am skeptical of the claim after studying Alex the parrot discussed below), I believe this limitation would be more a product of the way they think than of their ability to master a language.

Alex, an African grey parrot, is said to have asked existential questions including "what color" upon seeing himself in the mirror. Skeptics explain this by stating he was just lucky to ask an irrational question at the right time. Alex had a vocabulary of over 100 words. But he was more famous for his understanding of the words. For example, Alex knew small numbers. Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Alex's teacher, and handler were testing the ability of another parrot named Griffin to vocalize numbers while Alex watched. She sounded two clicks and asked how many. Griffin remained silent. She repeated the two clicks; Griffin again remained silent and Alex said "four". Pepperberg clicked two more times and Alex said "six." Subsequent tests revealed Alex could add numbers up to six and could count beyond that.

Alex could correctly select groups of objects based on complex descriptions including: bigger and smaller, same as, different than. He knew seven shapes and seven colors, and numbers of objects up to six. When asked the difference between two identical objects, he would answer "none".  Alex made a surprising leap of logic and language one day when he was shown groups of two, three, and six blocks of different colors. He was then asked which color had five blocks. Alex answered "none". This was the first time Alex used the word none to mean the quantity "zero" rather than "no difference". The first record of humans recognizing a symbol for the quantity zero was in the third century B.C.

Conversations between humans and Alex have been thoroughly tested and carefully documented.

Wild Dolphin Project
Dolphins not only use a sophisticated language to communicate among themselves but mimic human vocalizations and postures.  Denise Herzing and her team spend five months a year studying a pod of dolphins as part of their Wild Dolphin Project. The team members developed an underwater keyboard with four symbols representing a sound and an associated toy. The dolphins learned to request their chosen toy.

The next step in the project employed an interspecies translator for humans and dolphins that is designed to facilitate two-way conversations using sounds familiar to dolphins. Herzing conducts experimental research to create an artificial language that dolphins and humans can learn using underwater equipment called "Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry" (CHAT). A 20 minute TED presentation discusses progress (as of 2013) towards interspecies communication with these animals and others using the Interspecies Internet concept.