August 15, 2014
Two interesting science stories are in the news this week. When NASA's Stardust vehicle passed Earth in 2006, it dropped off a couple of cannisters containing particles that scientists now believe to be interstellar dust. If so, they are unique, the first time we've been able to collect such particles. They may have been formed in a supernova millions of years ago, and they may give us some insights on the formation of the solar system.
The other story: The European Space Agency launched a vehicle in 2004 which, they hoped, would rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gernimenko. So far everything has gone according to plan. The spacecraft has gotten within range and should be able to carry out the final phase of its mission in November. It will dispatch Philae, a lander, which will set down on the comet. If all goes well. That will also be a first. The landing will probably not be as easy as it sounds because the comet's surface is composed mostly of cliffs and large boulders.
In any case, we are now within sixty miles of 67P, and getting the best pictures ever of a comet. http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2014/aug/07/space-probe-pulls-up-to-comet-67p/
Also, sodium is grabbing headlines. I cut my salt intake back several years ago, all but eliminating it from my diet after reading that even small amounts can bring on serious heart problems. (I'm not sure if there's any such thing as a heart problem that isn't serious.) A number of organizations, including the American Heart Association, have been maintaining for years that people should limit themselves to a very low sodium level. Somewhere around 2300 milligrams perday. The AHA has dismissed the new report, and still says we should stay away from salt.
But the Institute of Medicine, which set up the current study at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says there's no compelling reason for anyone to impose a limit at that level. They maintain that there's new evidence and that the previous study, completed in 2005, has been superseded.
When I was in the fourth grade, our South Philadelphia school took us to watch a President Roosevelt motorcade. We were waving as he went by, and he waved back. It was a big moment, one of the most memorable of my time in grade school. FDR had by then been in the oval office for thirteen years. Everybody loved him, and there was no question that he'd be reelected in 1948, and whenever else he chose to run. He seemed a permanent part of the landscape, more or less like Independence Hall. A few months later, he died during a visit to Georgia.
The reaction was overwhelming. We had no TV, of course, in those years. But you could hear the emotions on the radio. People were in shock. Arthur Godfrey, covering the funeral a few days later, broke down in tears. My father commented that if FDR could die, anybody could. That's not a direct quote, of course. I don't recall precisely what he said, but the sense of it was clear enough. The remark, and the overall experience, has stayed with me because it was the first time I'd heard people talk seriously about death. Until then, dying, at least when mentioned in the presence of little kids, was strictly about spreading wings and rising to a better world.
But on that day, I got a different message. Like my father, I became aware of my own mortality. And Heaven seemed a bit farther than it had.
I suspect something similar may be happening in some homes around the nation with the loss this week of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall. My perspective has changed, of course, with the passing years. I've been face to face with mortality for a long time now. But watching those two pass reminds me that the world continues to change. That the place I live in now is utterly unlike the nice comfortable world of 1945, when a sailor hugged a young woman during a Broadway celebration, and we were looking forward to a time of peace. The world evolves. Some of it has been in the right direction. The discrimination, which I was unaware of in the mid-40's, is at least illegal. And people can marry whomever they wish. Sometimes though the change is painful. The economy breaks down. We get into wars. We lose people we love all the time. Which is one more reason to make sure that those who matter to us are aware of our feelings.
The only constant seems to be change.