Thursday, September 29, 2005

Of Note: Scientists Finally Quell My Quicksand Phobia

It's fair to say that, growing up, I worried more than your average kid. I worried about normal things, like my parents dying. But more than anything, I worried about the impossible: Airplanes falling from the sky and landing on me; my brother getting drafted and shipped off to die in battle at age ten. At one point, thanks to Tarzan, I became acutely phobic of killer bees and man-eating-ants. My parents told me they didn't exist in the US, but I looked at a map and convinced myself that they could easily come from South America to my backyard in Illinois. But my biggest phobia for several years -- one that kept me up at night -- was quicksand.

My brother and I watched a lot of weird 70s jungle shows -- and played weird jungle video games -- so in my world, people were constantly getting stuck in quicksand. They'd flail around screaming as friends threw them sticks, shirts, whatever -- desperately trying to pull them out -- but nothing ever worked. And it all happened so fast: They were just walking along and suddenly, squish, they're up to their waist, chest, neck, then they're gone. Just like that.

I secretly feared walking in the park down the street from my house because of the quicksand. Today, I know there was no quicksand in Illinois. But as a kid, it seemed an obvious risk: There were vines hanging from trees, there was sand on the trail, it looked just like the woods in the movies -- why wouldn't there be quicksand?

I'd completely forgotten about this old phobia of mine until a few months ago, when I watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time in years. At what felt like hour six in the movie, there's a graphic scene where a young boy dies in quicksand. At that point, I suddenly remembered my old quicksand fear and thought, See, that's why I live in New York City ... no quicksand!

So all of this is to say, I was very relieved to hear the news yesterday that scientists have reported that quicksand is not, in fact, as dangerous as all the movies make it seem. If you fall into quicksand, instead of being completely consumed by it, you will actually only sink to your waist. Then you float. But you're not exactly homefree: To just pull one leg out of quicksand, their study says, it takes the same amount of force needed to lift a car. Fortunately for all of us, the scientists offer tips for getting out:

"... while the risk of vanishing has apparently evaporated, escaping the muck is still a tough task: ... There are tricks, however. Quicksand is a mixture of fine sand, clay and saltwater. Once perturbed, the mixture transforms from a loose packing of sand on top of water into a dense, liquid soup. Movement by a victim makes things worse.

"The higher the stress, the more liquid the quicksand becomes, so movement by a trapped body causes it to sink in deeply," study leader Daniel Bonn of the University of Amsterdam writes in the Sept. 29 issue of the journal Nature. After the mix liquefies, the quicksand splits into a water-rich phase and a sand-rich one. The wet sand sediment becomes so densely packed that it's harder to move than cold molasses. Once the victim's foot becomes stuck in it, the situation is dire ... How to get outBonn and his colleagues found, however, that if a you remain calm, you can actually float your way to safety.

"The researchers simulated a quicksand pit in the lab and placed an aluminum ball of greater density than the quicksand on top of the pit. The ball didn't sink until the researchers began to shake the pit, simulating movement and turning the mixture of sand and water more liquid. When they did this, the ball sank right to the bottom.

But when they used an aluminum ball with a density equal to the human body, which is less than the density of quicksand, they found it impossible to sink the ball, no matter how hard they shook the pit ... The advice : Stay calm and eventually you'll float. Stretch out on your back to increase your surface area and wait until your legs pop free. Bonn also suggests moving your legs around at this point, to stir in water, which will help you float. "You have to introduce water into the sand," Bonn said. "And the easiest way to do that is to make it trickle along your leg into the quicksand, by making a circular motion with your leg."
Now, call me crazy, but I'm thinking -- if I'm stuck in quicksand and the only thing that can get me out is some water trickling down my leg, I'd be making more than circular motions, if you know what I mean. But either way, I'm in no hurry to test their theory: They did this reserach using aluminum balls in simulated quicksand. I'll wait until they work it out with actual people in actual quicksand ...

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Of Note: A River of Cocaine

A group of scientists studying drug use in northern Italy recently reported that, based on the amount of cocaine byproduct found in the River Po, the 5 million people living near the river consume about 200,000 lines of cocaine each day (that's about $150 million worth of cocaine per year).

Cocaine breaks down in the body to form a compound called benzoylecgonine, which is excreted in the urine along with trace amounts of actual cocaine. In the region around the River Po, apparently benzoylecgonine goes from Italian toilets to Italian water processing plants, straight into the River, where scientists can isolate and measure it using mass spectrometry. In a similar study, these scientists found large quantities of prescription drugs contaminating the river as well.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Of Note: International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Yesterday was September 19th, 2005 -- International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Japanese Respect for the Aged day ... and my birthday. As usual, I insisted on celebrating my birthday for three days straight, which meant eating large amounts of Spanish food one night, Sushi the next, then driving into the middle of nowhere in Wexford, Pennsylvania to sit in a beautiful outdoor garden eating freshly harvested vegetables and drinking champagne mixed with fresh raspberries. All with good friends.

But September 19th isn't just my birthday. It also happens to be the day Giles Corey was killed for being a wich after the famous Salem Witch Trials (1692). Corey was "pressed" -- killed by villagers who stacked increasingly large rocks on top of him. It took two days for him to die, all while adamantly denying he was a witch.

It was the day women were finally allowed to vote (1893) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid committed their first robbery (1900). It's the anniversary of the first underground nuclear bomb test and the Dodgers last game at Ebbets Field (1957), where they beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2-0 (fortunately, my father was watching the Dodgers game that day, not the nuclear bomb test). Khruschev was banned from Disneyland on September 19 (1959), 155 people died when a Boeing 747 collided with a mountain in Turkey (1976) and 171 died when their DC-10 was decimated by a terrorist's bomb over the Tunuru Desert in Niger (1989). This probably has something to do with my life-long fear of flying.

On September 19th, Scott Fahlman posted the first recorded emoticon :-) to the internet (1982), which I like, and an earthquake in Mexico killed thousands (1985), which I don't like. It's also the day hurricaine Hugo hit South Carolina (1980), the Guelb El-Kebir massacre hit Algeria (1997)., a couple German tourists discovered Otzi the Iceman, and just hours later, death took Dr. Seuss (1991). A little known fact: Dr Seuss -- otherwise known as Theodor Seuss Geisel -- drew animated insects for a bug spray company before he became Dr. Seuss the childrens book author. And September 19th isn't our only connection: Dr. Seuss was born in Springfield, MA; I was born in Springfield, IL.

Speaking of celebreties: September 19th is the day Twiggy was born, which has always made me happy (see photo above), and the day Red Fox died, which has always made me sad. This may explain why the Sanford and Sons Theme is one of my all time favorite songs.


Friday, September 02, 2005

On The Road Again & Fish Medicine

As you may have figured out from my air silence the last couple weeks, I'm on the road again. This time I'm in Pittsburgh, where I'm teaching at the University of Pittsburgh as a visiting writer for the fall semester (in the Cathedral of Learning, pictured left).

I got to Pittsburgh a few days ago after an exhilerating week in Baltimore teaching at the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers Conference -- an intensive event filled with readings, panel discussions and heavy workshopping. I teach there every August, and it's always one of the best parts of my summer ... like geek summer camp for writers, only better. It's endless fun.

From Baltimore, I headed straight for a crazy-fun week in North Carolina with Dr. Greg Lewbart, where I filmed a segment for Nova ScienceNOW about fish surgery. That's right: Fish medicine. There's a whole field of veterinary medicine devoted to treating fish. We're talking MRIs, CT scans, bloodwork, surgery, pain medications, you name it -- procedures that cost hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, to treat pet fish. Everything from fancy koi to regular goldfish people win at fairs. I wrote about this last year in a New York Times Magazine called Fixing Nemo, but the Nova segment will cover fresh ground: It explores new developments in the field, and really getting into the isue of fish personality, and the relationships people form with their fish. It does all of this with beautiful television footage, which means that when it airs (October 18th on PBS) you can see this stuff with your own eyes -- you can watch a fish surgery performed by one of the nation's top fish vets (known in the field as "The Big Fish"), and you get to meet several personality-filled fish, and the people who love them. I'll post a reminder about it when the time is closer.

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