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07/03/2020

Emerging from Isolation

 CHAPTER 114  Opening Up?      

 

On June 22, 2020, I had one of the more memorable experiences of my life.  I got a haircut!!!  (My previous haircut was on February 7, making it some 4 and a half months between cuts.)   I actually started this column on Memorial Day weekend but somehow all the problems with the COVID-19 virus, the racial problems and the machinations of the self-proclaimed genius in charge of our country have sapped my energy and I never got beyond writing what follows in this first paragraph: "Last month I mentioned that a good friend, age 96, had contracted the Corona disease in a rehab facility following an operation on a broken hip.  Happily, he is back home and doing well.  On the other hand, another friend and fellow member of our Old Guard group encountered the virus in a different rehab facility and died at 72.  He had had a lung transplant a year or so ago and was in the rehab center with a breathing problem, a prime target for the virus." 

Here in our town of some 22,000 there have been more than 200 cases of the virus and 17 have died.  In the past few months, some other things seem to have died for me - my memory for names and my enthusiasm for reading articles in scientific journals!  At age 92, it's not surprising that I often have trouble coming up with the names of many people, even individuals that I know well or interact with on a frequent basis.  I call it the Nathan Lane effect.  Nathan Lane is one of my favorite Broadway actors.  Naturally, I forget the names of plays that I've seen him in and I don't think of him often but for many years I've found that when he does come to mind I can never remember his name and it will take at least an hour or even a day before I come up with Nathan Lane.  Sadly, today I could come up with scores of names ranging from stars known more widely than Nathan Lane to members of our Old Guard group that I've known for years. 

More worrisome to me than the memory problem are the stacks of journals or science magazines that lie around the house totally unread and even unopened.  These include issues of Scientific American, Discover, National Geographic and Smithsonian, not to mention weekly issues of Science online unread for at least 6 months.   The only scientific articles that have not been ignored are the emailed press releases I get from NASA/JPL.  Or the item by Joel Achenbach in the June 26 issue of The Star-Ledger headlined "Earth discovers neighbors only 11 light years away" about a planetary system around a nearby star that offers the prospect for studies on the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system.  My interest and enthusiasm for space related subjects survives.  The neighbors referred to in the newspaper headline are the low mass red dwarf star GJ 887 and at least two but possibly three planets orbiting it.  If the third one exists it may be in a habitable zone and a possible subject for study by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  I've written about the JWST, a long awaited successor to the Hubble telescope, at least once in these columns.  It's launch has been scheduled, then postponed a number of times and I'm skeptical that I'll live long enough to see JWST fulfill its promise, perhaps finding evidence of an atmosphere capable of supporting life around a planet orbiting GJ 887.

A stellar discovery of more immediate interest came to my attention in a NASA/JPL press release headlined "A Cosmic Baby is Discovered, and It's Brilliant".   The "baby", designated Swift J1818.0?1607, was spotted back on March 12 at NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory when a huge burst of X-rays was observed.  Further observations by NASA/JPL and the European Space Agency revealed the object was a neutron star and a magnetar.   A neutron star is born when a star explodes and under the right circumstances forms this incredibly dense object  about 20 to 30 miles in diameter but so dense that if you could bring a teaspoon of it back to Earth it would weigh some 4 billion tons!!  Why call this neutron star a baby?  Studies indicate that what we are seeing is the light from the star when it was only about 240 years old.  (Actually, the object is some 16,000 light years away from us but the light we see is just the 240 year old light.)  Most objects astronomers get a chance to study are millions or billions of years old so this is truly a rare opportunity to follow the history of a rare celestial object from very close to its birth. 

There's more.  The "baby" also carries with it a monstrous magnetic field, a thousand times stronger than the magnetic field of most neutron stars.  This qualifies it to be classified as a "magnetar".  There are over 3,000 known neutron stars but only 30 (now 31) magnetars.  Let's narrow down the field once more.  Neutron stars can also emit beams of radio waves, in which case they are called radio pulsars.  Our baby is one of just five known magnetars that are also radio pulsars.  So, this is one very special star that astronomers will look forward to watching over the coming years, hopefully centuries or longer if we humans are still around that long. 

I can't finish this column without mention of a space-oriented bright spot that that lifted my spirits during the bad  news dominating the media the past few months.  I'm talking about the astronauts riding the SpaceX shuttle to the International Space Station.  When the history of 21st century is written I don't see how Elon Musk can avoid being cited as a key figure.  I don't know how PayPal will be rated in importance, if at all, but certainly his contributions to electric vehicles and climate change mitigation combined with his bold venture into space travel cannot be ignored.  And who knows?  If he lives long enough, he may even get to try personally to get to Mars.  I wouldn't put it past him to send a Tesla car to the planet to drive around in when he gets there.

Finally, I noted that I began this column around Memorial Day.  Even though I'm ending this column on the day before the 4th of July, I want to continue something that I've done every year for a long time.  That's been to read portions of the book "Heroes Among Us" by John Ent, a book about students of Mechanicsburg High School in Pennsylvania who served in World War II.  Every year around this time of remembering those who gave their lives fighting for this country, I mention Bill Guyer, who lived across the street from me in Mechanicsburg, and Frank Martin, who lived a few doors down the street.  Bill died when his plane crashed in Burma.  Frank died fighting in Europe.  I checked on John Ent, who served in combat in Vietnam and in Korea, and found that he died a few years ago.  All served our country well.

I hope that by the time I post another column I have restored some of my interest in science other than space and have read at least a couple of those journals.  As I close this column, I'm looking at the July 2020 issue of Scientific American with a picture of the Corona virus on the cover.  It's not invisible!  Under that was the June issue of Discover with a skull fossil on the cover and the words "Becoming human. Breakthroughs shaking up evolution".  Should be interesting.

Allen F. Bortrum

 



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-07/03/2020-      
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Dr. Bortrum

07/03/2020

Emerging from Isolation

 CHAPTER 114  Opening Up?      

 

On June 22, 2020, I had one of the more memorable experiences of my life.  I got a haircut!!!  (My previous haircut was on February 7, making it some 4 and a half months between cuts.)   I actually started this column on Memorial Day weekend but somehow all the problems with the COVID-19 virus, the racial problems and the machinations of the self-proclaimed genius in charge of our country have sapped my energy and I never got beyond writing what follows in this first paragraph: "Last month I mentioned that a good friend, age 96, had contracted the Corona disease in a rehab facility following an operation on a broken hip.  Happily, he is back home and doing well.  On the other hand, another friend and fellow member of our Old Guard group encountered the virus in a different rehab facility and died at 72.  He had had a lung transplant a year or so ago and was in the rehab center with a breathing problem, a prime target for the virus." 

Here in our town of some 22,000 there have been more than 200 cases of the virus and 17 have died.  In the past few months, some other things seem to have died for me - my memory for names and my enthusiasm for reading articles in scientific journals!  At age 92, it's not surprising that I often have trouble coming up with the names of many people, even individuals that I know well or interact with on a frequent basis.  I call it the Nathan Lane effect.  Nathan Lane is one of my favorite Broadway actors.  Naturally, I forget the names of plays that I've seen him in and I don't think of him often but for many years I've found that when he does come to mind I can never remember his name and it will take at least an hour or even a day before I come up with Nathan Lane.  Sadly, today I could come up with scores of names ranging from stars known more widely than Nathan Lane to members of our Old Guard group that I've known for years. 

More worrisome to me than the memory problem are the stacks of journals or science magazines that lie around the house totally unread and even unopened.  These include issues of Scientific American, Discover, National Geographic and Smithsonian, not to mention weekly issues of Science online unread for at least 6 months.   The only scientific articles that have not been ignored are the emailed press releases I get from NASA/JPL.  Or the item by Joel Achenbach in the June 26 issue of The Star-Ledger headlined "Earth discovers neighbors only 11 light years away" about a planetary system around a nearby star that offers the prospect for studies on the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system.  My interest and enthusiasm for space related subjects survives.  The neighbors referred to in the newspaper headline are the low mass red dwarf star GJ 887 and at least two but possibly three planets orbiting it.  If the third one exists it may be in a habitable zone and a possible subject for study by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  I've written about the JWST, a long awaited successor to the Hubble telescope, at least once in these columns.  It's launch has been scheduled, then postponed a number of times and I'm skeptical that I'll live long enough to see JWST fulfill its promise, perhaps finding evidence of an atmosphere capable of supporting life around a planet orbiting GJ 887.

A stellar discovery of more immediate interest came to my attention in a NASA/JPL press release headlined "A Cosmic Baby is Discovered, and It's Brilliant".   The "baby", designated Swift J1818.0?1607, was spotted back on March 12 at NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory when a huge burst of X-rays was observed.  Further observations by NASA/JPL and the European Space Agency revealed the object was a neutron star and a magnetar.   A neutron star is born when a star explodes and under the right circumstances forms this incredibly dense object  about 20 to 30 miles in diameter but so dense that if you could bring a teaspoon of it back to Earth it would weigh some 4 billion tons!!  Why call this neutron star a baby?  Studies indicate that what we are seeing is the light from the star when it was only about 240 years old.  (Actually, the object is some 16,000 light years away from us but the light we see is just the 240 year old light.)  Most objects astronomers get a chance to study are millions or billions of years old so this is truly a rare opportunity to follow the history of a rare celestial object from very close to its birth. 

There's more.  The "baby" also carries with it a monstrous magnetic field, a thousand times stronger than the magnetic field of most neutron stars.  This qualifies it to be classified as a "magnetar".  There are over 3,000 known neutron stars but only 30 (now 31) magnetars.  Let's narrow down the field once more.  Neutron stars can also emit beams of radio waves, in which case they are called radio pulsars.  Our baby is one of just five known magnetars that are also radio pulsars.  So, this is one very special star that astronomers will look forward to watching over the coming years, hopefully centuries or longer if we humans are still around that long. 

I can't finish this column without mention of a space-oriented bright spot that that lifted my spirits during the bad  news dominating the media the past few months.  I'm talking about the astronauts riding the SpaceX shuttle to the International Space Station.  When the history of 21st century is written I don't see how Elon Musk can avoid being cited as a key figure.  I don't know how PayPal will be rated in importance, if at all, but certainly his contributions to electric vehicles and climate change mitigation combined with his bold venture into space travel cannot be ignored.  And who knows?  If he lives long enough, he may even get to try personally to get to Mars.  I wouldn't put it past him to send a Tesla car to the planet to drive around in when he gets there.

Finally, I noted that I began this column around Memorial Day.  Even though I'm ending this column on the day before the 4th of July, I want to continue something that I've done every year for a long time.  That's been to read portions of the book "Heroes Among Us" by John Ent, a book about students of Mechanicsburg High School in Pennsylvania who served in World War II.  Every year around this time of remembering those who gave their lives fighting for this country, I mention Bill Guyer, who lived across the street from me in Mechanicsburg, and Frank Martin, who lived a few doors down the street.  Bill died when his plane crashed in Burma.  Frank died fighting in Europe.  I checked on John Ent, who served in combat in Vietnam and in Korea, and found that he died a few years ago.  All served our country well.

I hope that by the time I post another column I have restored some of my interest in science other than space and have read at least a couple of those journals.  As I close this column, I'm looking at the July 2020 issue of Scientific American with a picture of the Corona virus on the cover.  It's not invisible!  Under that was the June issue of Discover with a skull fossil on the cover and the words "Becoming human. Breakthroughs shaking up evolution".  Should be interesting.

Allen F. Bortrum