science

Astronomy, 1777

A number of years ago I was helping a friend clean out his father’s house when I came across, among stacks and stacks of old books, a book that was falling apart, with pages tan with age. It was obviously old, but it was hard to tell how old it was. It was missing the title page, and the book was written in German. To make matters worse, it was printed using the difficult-to-decipher Gothic characters known as “Fraktur.” Here was a puzzle!

But was it a puzzle worth spending time against? In the back of the book are a number of star charts. They are "tipped in,” meaning, they are fold-out charts that are bound with the regular pages. Twelve of the charts show the constellations in the sky for each month of the year. The illustration of each constellation is a fanciful pen-and-ink drawing of how that constellation is represented. A larger chart shows the solar system (as it was known at the time) with the position of the planets at various times of the year. A final chart shows the surface of the moon.

So, it is an astronomy book. But how old is it? The answer comes at the end of the foreword to the book: “Berlin, den 25ten Marz, 1777.” The book was published in Berlin in 1777!

After the table of contents, the first page is titled “Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten Himmels.” (Translated: “Instruction for the Knowledge of the Starry Heavens.”) This was written by the eminent German astronomer Johann Elert Bode. The 1777 printing was the third edition of this work, a work of sufficient importance to be released in several more editions into the early 1800s.

Bode was known for his reformulation and popularization of a mathematical model, originally proposed by Johann Daniel Titius, that purported to predict the distance of then-unknown planets from the sun. This law, known as the Titius-Bode Law, originally met with success but as further knowledge of the outer planets was gained, the predictions of the law broke down. Nevertheless, Bode played a part in the discovery and naming of the planet Uranus.

Scientific genealogies relate scientists to their graduate school advisors, and their advisors’ advisors, as well as their students, and their students’ students. Bode is not as well known as his “grand-student,” the eminent mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, or his “great-grand-student,” the famous mathematician Bernhard Riemann.

Book collectors would describe my copy of Bode’s Anleitung as having bumped corners, chipped boards, worn ribs on the spine, and a deteriorating binding (not to mention the missing title page). Judging by prices asked for this book by dealers of antiquarian books in Germany, a complete restoration of the book would not be worth the expense. I opted to have the book professionally rebound. It now sits on my shelf, smug in its old age, taunting me, challenging me to renew my limited understanding of German from college language classes and translate it. Alas, I suspect that disassembling the book and removing the charts so they can be framed and displayed would make the book more valuable, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do surgery on the old man.

Neurologists and Firemen: A Review of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain on Fire"

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan's first-hand account of a debilitating illness, is both disturbing and captivating. Disturbing, because we are reminded by her story that any of us could be (and many people are) hit with a serious illness out of the clear blue. Life is neither fair, nor predictable. Captivating, because how many of us could lose our mind, as Cahalan did, and chronicle the process of our mental death and resurrection? The story of what she endures while in diagnostic limbo necessarily relies on the observations and notes of family, friends, and physicians. Detective work permeates Cahalan's story on two different levels: the struggles of physicians who are trying to determine why a young woman suddenly begins exhibiting bizarre behavior, hallucinations, and seizures, and, at a higher level, the author's application of her skills as an investigative reporter in order to piece her story together. If you've ever seen someone suffer from an unexplained illness, you can't help but connect with Cahalan's family, if not the author herself. I have watched someone close to me struggle with an autoimmune disorder that has baffled many doctors and placed major constraints on this person's quality of life. Simply giving this person's disorder a name (a.k.a., a definitive diagnosis) has eluded most doctors. Susannah Cahalan was extremely fortunate to have been diagnosed and successfully treated for what is known as "anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis."

I have also watched - with heartache - someone else I cared for periodically descend into a serious mental illness, and felt helpless to do anything about it. We look to doctors for answers and when they are unable to give them, it plants a seed of fear, a fear that this person may never be the same again. I also know someone who, like the author, was evaluated by a neuropsychologist for a cognitive disorder. It is truly amazing what the administration of cognitive tests can reveal about brain function.

Cahalan's story has a happy ending. She is successfully treated and, with time, able to make a full recovery. But she reminds us that there are many others, every day, whose illness so baffles physicians that they may never be appropriately diagnosed. Though modern medicine is able to treat and prevent disease in ways we would have never guessed, it is both true and uncomfortable to accept that there are medical tragedies for which we have yet to find a cure.

ROTFL and DNA - Lost in Translation?

Thanks to my friend Missy Frazier, I've learned a person's laugh can be transcribed using music notation. (See http://cmuse.org/signature-laugh-transcribed-to-sheet-music/.) It turns out a person's genetic code can also be turned into music. (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8807000/8807091.stm.) So could we take someone's laugh, transcribe it using music notation, back-translate the music notation to genetic code, and use bioinformatics to find the gene sequence that codes for that person's laugh? Just a bit of whimsy for the geeks out there. :)

"Orfeo": Science, Music, and the Meaning of Life

OrfeoOrfeo by Richard Powers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was excited when I learned Richard Powers had published a new novel. I've read his work before and appreciated many things in his stories: figurative language, music, science, and allusions that make you feel like you've accomplished something when you recognize to what the allusion alludes. All of this can be found in Orfeo as well. But ... unlike his other work I've read, this story was not as enjoyable. Far too much time was spent on the music side, and not the science side. And to fully appreciate the role of music in this novel, you would need a pretty darn good education in music, including history, theory, and composition. At times I felt confused by the way the story jumped back and forth between the protagonist's past and present - it is important not to forget what's happening in one timeframe till you can return to that timeframe further along in the story. Finally, while the novel reminded me of concepts put forth by Douglas Hofstadter in Godel Escher Bach An Eternal Golden Braid, I believe Powers could have better leveraged the relationships between science and the arts.

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