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Celebration of a Birthday and a Mammogram
CHAPTER 102 Celebrating Mendeleev and a Mammogram
This past month I had a medical experience that not too many of us of the male gender have had - a mammogram! At my annual physical with my primary care doctor, I pointed out that I had been having pain and what I thought was a lump in my left breast. Although he said he wasn't alarmed by what he found, he thought I should have a mammogram and an ultrasound. Needless to say, for the next few days until I had the mammogram I was not feeling great, thinking I might end up with a mastectomy.
When I arrived at our imaging center I was given a pink sheet to fill out and directed to sit in a section devoted to mammography and ultrasound, where some half dozen women patients were sitting. I was intrigued by the fact that the pink sheet asked me if I was pregnant, when was my last period, and other decidedly female oriented questions. There was no way on the form to make known my maleness. I asked the technician how many men they had as patients and she replied that they were on a roll. They had about five men come in over the past few weeks.
For my male readers who probably have not had a mammogram, it's not a particularly comfortable experience. I knew there would be some sort of compression involved but did not expect at least three or four compressions per breast, each at a different angle. The technician did both breasts for comparison and when she squeezed down on the one with the problem it really hurt. I now can empathize with women having to go through this procedure more than once. After the mammogram I had the ultrasound and thought I would have to wait for the results to be reported to me by my doctor. However, I was pleasantly surprised when a doctor came in and she also did a couple passes with the ultrasound, after which she said that she did not see any mass and that my problem could be due to a reaction to some medication.
In my column of November 1, 2018, I told of the chaplain who came to give my wife communion and that I mentioned to him my stupidity in turning down a chance to meet Bob Feller while he signed a baseball I purchased as a gift. He countered with his story of playing ball as a kid with a baseball signed by Babe Ruth until the cover came off. Well, he was back a couple weeks ago and had another sports story. He lived in upper Manhattan and one day was talking with the basketball coach at one of the Catholic schools. The coach was over six feet tall and there was a kid there who was almost as tall. The kid was saying that he wanted to be on the basketball team but the coach replied that wasn't possible because the kid was only in sixth grade. Sy asked the boy what his name was. You probably guessed - Lew Alcindor! The chaplain said he knew the parents and they were a great family, as was the boy. Coincidentally, just a couple days before talking with the chaplain, I had watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory and Kareem Abdul Jabbar was on the show playing Dungeons and Dragons with a group of celebrities including William Shattner. On the remote possibility that you are not the least bit familiar with basketball, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. grew up to be 7 ft 2 in Kareem Abdul Jabbar, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. Wikipedia has a detailed history of his life and accomplishments and mentions that he weighed 12 pounds 11 ounces at birth! I mentioned this to a couple female friends and they both shuddered at the thought.
What to say next? I must correct a lie I told in my previous column. I said that I hadn't read a book since Tom Clancy's last novel. What a memory. I had actually just finished reading a book titled "Gods of Wood and Stone" by Mark Di Ionno. Mark had just quit his job as a columnist for The Star-Ledger and recently spoke to our Old Guard group, where I purchased the book. He grew up in our town and recalled playing on a nearby field a couple blocks from our house. In those days the Old Guard met at a facility on this field and in summers after the meetings there would be games of some sort where the members, which in Di Ionno's youth included some World War 1 veterans, would participate.
Prior to his work on The Star-Ledger, Di Ionno covered sports for the New York Post, leaving that job just before a World Series that he would have had to cover. I won't give anything away if I tell you about the Preface to the book. It's in Cooperstown that the ceremony for the induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame is taking place and the lone inductee is sitting on the stage about to receive his award. He's being introduced when a man in the audience walks up on the stage with a big hammer in his hands and smashes the plaque!! The rest of the book is devoted to detailing the lives of the two highly troubled characters, the womanizing baseball star and the highly educated blacksmith who can't stand the sports-celebrity culture of today. The book is full of sex and blunt language and if you should read it you'll learn a lot about the Cardiff Giant, which plays an important role in the story.
Well, I should make an attempt to get in some science. If you have a weak stomach you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. I normally would not have considered writing about such a grisly story but, having been to Pompeii and to part of the area affected by the Mt. St. Helens eruption, I do have some personal experience with the aftermath of volcanic catastrophes. I probably have mentioned before that many years ago we were in Pompeii in one of the abodes where the lava had flowed, we found ourselves standing next to another couple from our town here in New Jersey. On another occasion, we were in London at a site marking the resting place of some historical figure and found ourselves standing next to a couple we had met a year or so earlier at a luau in Honolulu! Death seems to bring people together.
Now to the grisly stuff. First let me say there is some science involved that relates to my work as a physical chemist. One of the subjects in physical chemistry involves heats of various reactions, such as the heat required to vaporize various substances. Through an email from the Science History Institute, I came upon an article by Sam Kean in the publication Distillations suggesting that you and I may be breathing some of Harry Truman! No, it's not that Harry Truman I'm talking about. This Harry Truman was a guy who had the chance to leave the area around Mt. St. Helens before it blew up but insisted on remaining in his home some distance away from the volcano. Truman became something of a folk figure for his insistence on staying put but he paid for his stubbornness with his life. Sam Kean speculates on the fate of Truman, specifically on the possibility that he was vaporized when the volcano erupted!
In his article, Kean provides the numbers on the amounts of energy it would have taken to vaporize the various components of Truman's body. I won't go into detail but he gives the numbers of calories it would take to vaporize the liquids, skin and organs and the hardest to vaporize, bony structure. He concludes that only an atom bomb or a volcano would provide enough energy to do the trick. If indeed Truman was vaporized there probably are some atoms or molecules of Truman floating around in the atmosphere all over the world. In the past, I've occasionally thought of the probability that I've breathed molecules of the same air that various historical figures also breathed but I don't recall ever considering breathing molecules that were part of their bones.
Actually, I had planned to devote this column primarily to the Periodic Table, which just celebrated the 150th birthday. It was in 1869 that Dmitri Mendeleev's published his arrangement of the known elements. His arrangement of these elements left gaps allowing him to predict the existence of unknown elements to fill those gaps and was a major step forward in both chemistry and physics. The February 1 issue of Science featured papers on the Periodic Table and on topics such as the quest to create new elements and on the origins of the elements starting with the Big Bang and such things as supernovae, collisions of neutron stars etc. Would you believe that the same Sam Kean who wrote the article on vaporizing Harry Truman wrote one of the Science articles titled "The Quest for Superheavies"! Kean, a science journalist based in Washington, D.C., wrote the Science article in Dubna, Russia, home of the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions. The Flerov was founded back in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev approved the construction of a secret nuclear lab in Dubna and one of the original workers at the Florev was Yuri Oganessian.
I'm sure I've noted before that when I was in school there were only 92 elements. With the atomic bomb, plutonium became the 93rd element. After the war the race was on to find or make new elements. Now we have 118 known elements. The heaviest is oganesson, element number 118, with 118 protons in its nucleus, named after Yuri Oganessian. Don't expect to see any oganesson anywhere. It only lasted for less than a thousandth of a second and there were less than a handful of atoms produced! Kean describes Oganessian saying that no living person has shaped the architecture of the periodic table more than Oganessian. The Flerov has come up with nine new elements, including the five heaviest, which includes flerovium, moscovium and oganesson, names honoring their Russian origin. This spring, perhaps even now, Oganessian and his intrepid band of element makers will try for elements 119 and 120.
There are those who question whether it's worth the time and money spent on making new elements. This especially the case for those elements such as oganesson that are so unstable they decay very rapidly sometimes lasting only a very small fraction of a second! Indeed, some of these heavy elements decay so rapidly that you only know you've made a new element when you analyze the decay products.
Why are these heavy atoms so unstable? I learned from the article something I should have thought of before. What does the nucleus of any atom have? Protons and neutrons. Protons are positively charged. Positive charges repel each other. The heavier the element the more protons and the stronger the repulsion and the nucleus wants to fly apart. Adding neutrons apparently screens the charges somewhat and the nucleus hangs together longer. So, one of the tricks in making heavy new elements is banging together isotopes of elements having more neutrons. And you can't bang some of them together too hard or they get blasted apart. Oganessian and his colleagues have done cold fusion (not the type that created quite a stir years ago). This cold fusion involves banging the elements together more gently than the usual high energy collisions in most accelerators.
Kean ends his article with a quote by one of the Flerov researchers, Alexander Karpov, who is wearing a moscovium pin in his lapel. "There's a majesty in increasing the number of protons." "It's natural to come to a limit" and try to push beyond. "sometimes it is good to say you did something first." Could he be hoping there's a karpovium in his future?
Next column in the vicinity of May 1, hopefully. I'll try to avoid boring you with my medical problems and my book reviews. I'm absolutely sure I won't be reading a book.
Allen F. Bortrum