Surprising Productivity and Activating the Brain
CHAPTER 85 Raising Tomatoes and Curing Addiction
When I posted last month's column, ending with some comments regarding Harvey and the devastation in Texas, I noted another hurricane out there in the Atlantic. At the time it had not achieved the status of the most powerful hurricane ever recorded and I'm not sure it had yet been named Irma. After devastating the Keys, one of the first places in Florida to suffer a direct hit by Irma was Marco Island. After I retired from Bell Labs in 1989, my wife and I enjoyed many winter months on Marco Island and I posted many of these columns from that island. Accordingly, I was quite concerned when Marco took a direct hit from Irma and tried to get some idea of the damage there. Googling did turn up one heartening sign. One of our favorite dining spots there was Kretch's restaurant and I found a clip showing the restaurant staff serving food to residents of the island outside the restaurant, which apparently was too damaged inside. I also found a headline "Marco Island is Still Here" in some news source. Now my heart goes out to those in Puerto Rico.
Aside from our times in Marco, some of the most rewarding periods of my retirement were in the decade when I was course director and one of the three lecturers in a short 3-day course on batteries for the Center for Professional Advancement, based in New Jersey. The great part of the job was that we taught the course every year in Amsterdam as well as in New Jersey. Amsterdam was also the first city my family and I visited on our first trip to Europe back in 1968 and I'm guessing that I've spent a total of perhaps two or three months in the Netherlands. With the rise in sea levels and the more intensive storms resulting from global warming, we could learn a lot from Holland about managing water.
Which brings me back to New Jersey and one of the prize crops of our Garden State. In our town we have a farmers market and I recently cut open one of the tomatoes from that market. It was the most beautiful tomato I had ever seen! And combined with a slice of fresh mozzarella cheese from the market provided a repast fit for royalty. There is truly nothing like a good Jersey tomato. Which was why I was shocked to learn from an article in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic the identity of the nation that exports the most tomatoes to the world on a value basis. The Netherlands!
The Geographic article, by Frank Viviano, is titled "A tiny country feeds the world" and describes how Holland has taken growing crops in greenhouses to a level beyond belief. You simply have to see the pictures in the article to appreciate the vastness and the technology involved in growing not only tomatoes but other vegetables and, surprising to me, even fish! Pictured in the article is a huge greenhouse structure on top of a former factory in The Hague. In this unusual rooftop farm the vegetable plants are fertilized by the waste from the fish, while the plants themselves filter the water that supports the fish!
Whereas we in the USA have our Silicon Valley, Holland has its Food Valley, with a bunch of agricultural firms and experimental farms and its hub, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), located 50 miles from Amsterdam. WUR is apparently recognized as the world's top agricultural research institution and I believe it after reading the article. The Dutch have in some cases cut their use of water for key crops by 90 percent. Take those tomatoes. In the U.S. the water footprint was 15.2 gallons per pound in 2010 while in the Netherlands it's only 1.1 gallons per pound. No need for pesticides in their greenhouses, some greenhouse complexes covering 175 acres! The global average yield for potatoes is about 9 tons per acre while one Dutch farmer is getting more than 20 tons per acre. The Netherlands, in spite of its small size, has become a superpower in agriculture and, according to the article, is second only to the United States in the export of food by dollar value.
Actually, when I started to write this column, I had planned to write about another article in the same issue of National Geographic. The article, "The Addicted Brain" by Fran Smith, deals with a subject of great concern here in New Jersey, where our Governor Christie has taken on a role in trying to address the huge problem of opioid addiction, which is killing about 90 people a day in our country and took 1900 or more lives here in New Jersey last year. This Geographic article begins with an account of one addict who, hopefully, has been cured of his addiction.
Patrick, 38 years old and living in Genoa, Italy started on cocaine when he was only 17. He got married, had a son and opened a restaurant but the addiction caused him to lose his marriage and his business. He underwent two sessions of treatment lasting three months and eight months but, within less than only a day or two after each treatment session, he was back on cocaine and a total mess. Finally, his mother convinced him to visit a doctor in Padua who she said used electromagnetic waves to treat addiction.
The doctor, Luigi Gallimberti, a psychiatrist and toxicologist, had seen all the drug and other treatments for addiction fail and decided to try transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) after learning of work being done by Antonello Bonci and coworkers at the University of California, San Francisco. They had found that when they measured electrical activity in the brains of rats that had become addicted to cocaine there was a region of the brain that became unusually quiet. When they managed to use special genetic techniques to reenergize those regions of the rats' brains the rats were no longer interested in the cocaine. Gallimberti read about the California work in a newspaper and got in touch with the researchers. He thought TMS might prod any inactive area of the human brain into action as in the rats. Getting together with another colleague and the California group, they got together two groups of human cocaine addicts. One group of 13 addicts was given a month of TMS while another group of 11 addicts was given standard treatment and medication. At the end of the trial, 11 of the 13 on TMS were drug free while only 3 of the 11 were drug free with standard treatment.
So, what about Patrick? After the first TMS treatment he felt calm and soon lost his desire for cocaine. Six months later, he said that he still had no desire for cocaine and was completely changed, with a vitality and zest for life he had not felt in a long time. TMS involves a coiled wire inside a wand and when current passes through the coil a magnetic field is generated that alters electrical activity in the brain. It doesn't require traumatic surgery and has been used for other medical purposes such as treating depression. Let's hope that many others can be helped to kick their habit and return to a normal life.
I shouldn't end this column without mention of a death that has been widely publicized this past month, the incineration and vaporization of Cassini as it plunged into the atmosphere of the planet Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft and its Huygens lander that it released to land on the surface of Titan, one of the many moons of Saturn was one of the most productive endeavors of NASA and the ESA, with literally thousands of scientific publications resulting from the Cassini mission. To make sure it didn't pollute any of Saturn's moon's surfaces the spacecraft was deliberately send to its blazing death into Saturn itself. To my mind, the most important achievement was Cassini's finding of the existence on Enceladus of a salty ocean, a possible venue for life on that moon.
While Cassini is dead, the Hubble Space Telescope lives on. This past Sunday on 60 Minutes there was a segment on that venerable telescope and if you didn't see it I strongly recommend that you do so if you have On Demand or can get it through some other source. While I've seen most of the pictures shown in the segment, viewing them on a large HDTV screen is glorious. I especially enjoyed the portion of the segment devoted to what I consider to be the most amazing picture I've ever seen, the Deep Field image. One of the NASA researchers described how they focused the Hubble on a small patch of sky that was totally dark and, as she put it, just let the telescope "stare" at the patch for a long period of time to let the photons pile up. The result was the iconic photograph showing thousands of galaxies, not stars, in this small patch of sky! (Google Hubble deep field image if you haven't seen the image.)
I'm posting this column late, sadly watching the news reporting on how one man with guns can match or come close to the death tolls caused by major hurricanes. Truly sad.
Next column on or about November 1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum