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CHAPTER 107 Shingles, Sex and Saturn
This past month was not a great one for yours truly so I don't guarantee this column will be particularly coherent. Those of you who are into vaccines will know that some years ago a vaccine for shingles came on the market. And, more recently, an improved vaccine for this disease was announced. Well, back when the first vaccine appeared,. my primary care doctor asked if I wanted to have the shot. I responded no. After all, I reasoned, I had already had shingles three times! If having shingles twice didn't immunize me from my third bout, what could a shot do?
I remember the first time experiencing the malady I was due to report for jury duty and got up early to make the drive to Elizabeth, NJ. However, I almost fainted on the way to the bathroom. I called our doctor and, amazingly, he actually came to the house! He was having no luck diagnosing my problem when I asked him to look at a spot on my back that was bothering me. Turning me over, he said, "You just gave me my diagnosis!" Shingles. The only thing I remember about the second bout of shingles is that getting the drug acyclovir as soon as possible after diagnosis was important. The third time was memorable in that I noticed the rash while on board a ship headed for Amsterdam at the end of a cruise on the Baltic. Surprisingly, the ship's doctor had acyclovir and I managed to carry out my duties as the course director and a lecturer in a three-day short course on batteries in Amsterdam following the cruise!
OK, you've probably guessed that I wouldn't be going on like this if I hadn't come down with shingles for the fourth time a couple weeks ago. When I got up and noticed big red splotches following a path from abdomen around to mid-back I called our editor Brian Trumbore to quickly drive me to our urgent care facility, where the nurse practitioner said, "Wow! You do have shingles!" This time I was given the choice of taking acyclovir five times a day or valacyclovir twice a day. Obviously, I chose the v-- drug, which seemed to do the trick, keeping the pain down to a relatively few days.
Well, I'm supposed to be writing about science and technology, so let's talk about sex on the beach and the role that N-3-methylbutanoyl-O-methylpropanoyl-L-serine methyl ester plays. OK, if you have no idea what that compound looks like, I'm with you; and "Sex on the Beach" is the title of an article by Lesley Evans Ogden in the July/August 2019 issue of Discover magazine. The article is on the sex life of black widow spiders and the factors that come into play in the interaction of the male and female spiders. I imagine that most of you are aware that the male spider is likely to be eaten by the female after sex. While true, it seems to be just as likely, maybe even more so, that the male will be eaten before sex. The female is just hungry! So, it behooves the male to learn how to read the signals on the web relating to the female's appetite as well as her desire for hanky panky.
The young female western black widow spins herself a nondescript cobweb where she lounges just sitting and waiting for insects or other food sources to get trapped for her to chow down on. When she matures and decides it's time to attend to making new spiders, she advertises the fact she would welcome male company by spreading her web with pheromones that catch the attention of any males within smelling range. That chemical compound mentioned above is a potent component. On the sand dunes of Vancouver Island of British Columbia the spider population is such that the female's advertisement can draw a quick response from as many as 20, but more typically, around 7 males come scurrying to the female's lair.
Here's where things get dicey for the amorous male. Somehow, he's got to figure out whether the female is not just after sex but also is hungry for a snack. Contrary to common lore, the female eats more males before, rather than after sex. When the male sets feet on the female's web, he has some pheromones of his own to deploy and he also may do a dance of sorts on the web in which he vibrates the strings gently to tell her he's not a meal but a lover answering her ad In any case, the choice to try to become a female's lover is not to be taken lightly. Some 80 percent of males who set out to the female's nest die in the quest!
I was thinking of stopping here but the last few days there's been a lot of media attention paid to the deaths attributed to vaping and there has also been a warning from the surgeon general about possible damage to babies if the mother smokes marijuana. One quote I heard from a health professional was that today's product is "not your mother's marijuana." Well, last month one of our speakers at our weekly Old Guard meetings was a member of our group who attended Woodstock 50 years ago and he described how "everyone", including himself, was smoking marijuana or some other product of dubious legality. It was probably fortunate that in those days it was your mother's marijuana! (I've told the story here of my only experience smoking anything = a lit cigarette picked up off a street in Philadelphia as a kid and I got sick as a dog. One of the best things that ever happened to me. I've never been tempted to smoke anything ever again.)
Our speaker showed a clip of Richie Havens singing the song "Freedom, Freedom". (I don't know if just one Freedom is the title.) He told how Havens was supposed to be replaced but the scheduled acts had not shown up and Havens kept getting put back on stage. Three or four hundred thousand people had shown up! Not being familiar with Havens (hey, I'm from the generation who listened to Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee etc,), I Googled Havens and found an article by him in Rolling Stone. He was scheduled to come on fifth at Woodstock but ended up being first. He said he was afraid of being killed, opening the event three hours late and then ending up performing for almost three hours that Friday afternoon. His guitar accompanist abandoned his car on the New York Thruway 30 miles away and walked, arriving as Havens walked offstage!
Attending the Old Guard meeting as a guest was someone who was actually one of the six producers of Woodstock! His presence certainly added a touch of authenticity to whatever our speaker had to say, such as the claim that, with only a few days to go, there was only enough money to build either a fence or a stage! Obviously, they opted for a stage and without a fence, Woodstock became an event free to anyone wanting to walk in.
Well, I certainly didn't start this column intending to talk about Woodstock, so I feel obligated to finish on a scientific note. As I write this, the winds and rain of hurricane Dorian are pummeling the Bahamas and the east coast of the US is awaiting its arrival. Here in New Jersey, just as I write this paragraph a thunderstorm has just started. Recently, I learned that we on Earth are not the only planet experiencing water storms. In the September issue of the Smithsonian magazine there's an article by Shaun Raviv titled "Saturn's Surprise", which states that it's raining ice on Saturn!
I won't attempt to cover the scientific aspects of the story. It wouldn't do justice to the work of James O'Donoghue, when at the University of Leicester in England. O'Donoghue more or less stumbled into astronomy and found himself at Leicester assigned by his advisor, Tom Stallard, to study auroras on Saturn. His work led him to finding bands of a compound H3+ in Saturn's rings. His findings led him to conclude that the charged hydrogen compound could be involved in charging of particles of water ice and a movement of the particle out of the rings. The result = water as ice raining out of the rings down onto Saturn. The conclusion was that not just small particles, but chunks of ice were raining out of the rings and that someday the rings would be gone!
When he and Stallard published the work the paper was sent to Jack Connerney for review. In turned out that Cobberney, in a neglected paper on work on the Voyager and Pioneer space missions, had coined the term "ring rain". years earlier. At that time H3+ was not known and the implications of rain on Saturn was not recognized. Anyway, the amount of rain/ice falling on Saturn is sufficient that the rings could be gone in say a few hundred thousand years.
Well, this has certainly been a potpourri of stuff ranging from my shingles and Woodstock to the ultimate demise of the rings on Saturn! Oh, almost forgot the sex. I'll try to be a bit more logically structured next time but at my age I don't guarantee it.
Next column sometime in October, hopefully. Note that I've become more realistic, having made my first-of-the-month deadline less frequently in my 90s.
Allen F. Bortrum