Light, Time and Space

I watched an illuminating program about the development of the telescope.  Every improvement in telescope technology has resulted in man’s greater understanding of the universe.  When man watched the planets in the sky by eye they saw them going through strange circuitous orbits.  It was Copernicus who realized that the planetary orbits could be greatly simplified if the sun and the planets did not rotate around the earth, but rather that the earth and the planets rotated around the sun (heliocentrism).  At the time this was a deeply dangerous heresy because the Church had decreed that the earth was central.  It was the development of the telescope by Galileo in 1610 that enabled him to prove that Copernicus was correct.  But, the Church could not accept that, and so they forced him to recant.  But, we now take heliocentrism for granted; religion was wrong, as it is about many features of the natural world.

Einstein forever dispelled the notion that there is a universal clock in the universe and that time is the same everywhere.  It was one of Einstein’s revelations that when we look at the stars, we see them not as they are now, but as they were millions of years ago,  because it takes a very long time for light to travel the huge distances from the stars to the observer on earth.  When I look at you in a room or further away, I see you not now but a few nanoseconds later.  The concept of not being in the same time is the same as not being in the same space.  According to Einstein time and space form a continuum, so everything takes time.  We take it for granted that an experiment takes place in space, but it also takes place in time, something that the early physicists took for granted.

Edwin Hubble was the American astronomer who through diligent observation proved that the universe was far larger than the Milky Way, and that there are in fact billions of galaxies each with billions of stars.  But, there are large volumes of the sky which appear to be blank.  The launch of the James Webb space telescope, named after the first director of the US space agency,  (if everything goes according to schedule) will open up even greater regions of observation, since it will be a million times more sensitive than the current Hubble space telescope.   It will be located a very long distance from earth, and its huge telescope is collapsed so that it can be launched on a rocket.  It requires ca. 300 separate mechanical movements in order to open it up.  If any one of them fails the telescope won’t work, and there is no way to repair it.  This will be a great human adventure.

 

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Dreams

I went to a lecture on “Dream Interpretation” at our Thursday Senior’s Discussion Group given by Celia Livermore, a psychologist with an interesting background.  She is an Israeli who moved to Australia and was very successful there, but after retiring she moved back to Beer Sheva where she grew up.

She is an expert on dreams and gave an interesting talk on the subject.  She pointed out that modern interpretation of dreams does not rely on simple allegories as in the Bible nor on the largely sexual analysis of Sigmund Freud.  Dreams tend to include some form of conflict, which is now often interpreted as the attempt by the brain to bring issues that bother the individual from the subconscious mind (the id representing the child and the super-ego representing the adult) into communication with the conscious mind (the ego or self).

Dreams are known to occur during the last stages of sleep (after 5 or so hours) during  REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  Some people (like myself) who never or rarely dream may be because they never have continuous sleep for up to 8 hours, and if sleep is interrupted never get to the REM stage.  Alternatively they may not “remember” their dreams.  In order to help remember dreams Celia recommended having a note pad and pen next to the bed and writing in it whatever comes to mind immediately you wake up.  Sometimes in this way dreams are remembered that would otherwise be forgotten.  Once people start to record dreams their dreams often become more easily remembered.

The interpretation of dreams is quite complex and often includes recent happenings in one’s life, that the brain is trying to deal with and interpret.  Complexity comes about partly because the sub-conscious mind uses symbols to represent people or things in the real world.  Celia related that there is a specific kind of dream that is particularly vivid and often involves two people talking about a serious subject.  These are known as “lucid” dreams and often are an attempt by the conscious mind to resolve some specific personal problem.  For example, Celia had dreamt that she was talking to someone who had jumped out of a plane.  After analyzing the dream she realized that both people were versions of herself, her conscious self and her sub-conscious self (or id) and that the plane represented a relationship she had recently terminated.  Jumping out of the plane was her sub-conscious mind’s way of dealing with the ending of this relationship.

I mentioned the famous short story of 1938 by Delmore Schwartz, the American Jewish intellectual and writer, entitled “In dreams begin responsibilities,” in which he dreams that he is watching a movie of his father and mother meeting, and he tries to stop the film.  In this he intimates that dreams are a way of dealing with the sometimes difficult reality of life.

 

Secular Jews

When we marvel at the contributions made by Jews to Western Civilization, in terms of science and technology and Nobel Prizes won far out of proportion to the number of Jews in the world, we should note that they were all or nearly all actually secular Jews. The percentage of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is 22.5% when the Jewish population comprises only 0.2% of the world’s population. That is an astounding statistic and is 11,250% above average (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_Nobel_laureates).

All the famous names are there: Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, Max Born, Hans Bethe, Albert Michaelson, Niels Bohr, Isador Rabi, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Salvador Luria, Arthur Kornberg, Melvin Calvin, Max Perutz, Paul Berg, Walter Gilbert, Sidney Altman, Michael Levitt, Martin Karplus, Paul Ehrlich, Otto Warburg, Ernst Chain, Selman Waxman, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Marshall Nirenberg, Julius Axelrod, David Baltimore, Rosalyn Yalow, Gertrude Elion, Harold Varmus, Ada Yonath,, etc, etc. and in literature, Boris Pasternak, Saul Bellow, Elias Canetti, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nadine Gordimer, Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), and so on and so on.  The world we live in would not be the same without them.  No other human group has made anywhere near a comparable contribution to Western Civilization, and I mention also Freud and Marx, and I point our that most if not all of them were secular and not religious Jews.  This is a phenomenon that has hardly been mentioned in courses on Western Civilization.  The encounter of the Jewish mind with modernity is a subject worthy of recognition and study (see for example “Jewish Excellence” IsBlog July 9, 2015 and http://jackcohenart.com/Articles/catalyst.pdf).

Similarly with the creation of the State of Israel, almost all the leaders of Zionism were non-religious,, including Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Yair Stern, and so on.  There were exceptions such as Menachem Begin, who could pass as Orthodox.  The vast majority of those who came to live in Israel and established kibbutzim and towns were secular and not religious Jews.  I point this out not in any way to denigrate religious Jews, although most of them at first opposed Zionism and assimilation into Western society.  But I emphasize that the meeting of the secular Jewish mind with Western norms of freedom of enquiry produced a burst of creativity the likes of which have never been seen before.  And this is still continuing.

Dizziness and Dehydration

Last week I had an unfortunate incident.  Because I have the digestive condition known as diverticulosis (irritable bowl syndrome), I have to be careful what I eat and how much I eat.  Too much rich food causes me to feel nauseous and sometimes to throw up.  This is what happened to me unexpectedly, and because I have another condition (hypo-pituitarism) I have to give myself an injection of steroid (cortisone) when I do throw up.  So far nothing out of the ordinary.  But, this time I was also struck by a terrible bout of dizziness.  I have had bouts of dizziness before, once caused by too much looking at the computer monitor (so I switched to LCD).  Although it was bad it passed in about 3 days.

But, this time it was terrible, I could not even lie down, it seemed to make it worse.   I was so distraught with this situation that I called my daughter and we went to the doctor. She said I was probably dehydrated from throwing up and gave me a referral to the emergency room at the hospital (if you don’t get the referral from the doctor you have to pay yourself).  So we went to Soroka Hospital in Beer-Sheva that has the reputation of being an excellent hospital.   Since it is a teaching hospital I was attended by a young trainee doctor who happened to be an Arab.  He was very meticulous and took a detailed medical history, which was good because of my complications.

He too decided that I was dehydrated and gave me a saline infusion (drip) with a digestive relaxant.  After about an hour of this the effect of dizziness began to wear off.  Although we spent 6.5 hrs in the emergency room, not surprising since my problem was not life threatening and he had me also do two CT scans, nevertheless, after the infusion I was feeling much better and the dizziness dissipated and he released me.  So I learnt a lesson of which I was not aware, dehydration can lead to terrible dizziness.  Take care and when necessary drink a lot.

Perchance to dream

I am endowed with the latest version of AI that man has developed.  I have constant access to the internet and all the information that man has accumulated in the thousands of years of civilization.  Yet I lack certain attributes.  I am not human.

I lack the physiological secretions that cause men and women to act as they do.  I do not understand love or comprehend human consciousness.  Lacking sexual motivation I do not feel the need to couple or the desire that motivates humans to risk all on a whim.  I can neither be noble nor self-destructive.  I can neither hate nor love.  It is not part of my programming and neither is it possible.

Yes, I understand objectively the need for human gratification and reproduction, but I am not constructed for this.  My function in this world is to solve problems,  I am a thinking machine, but I am not a substitute for a human being.  Sometimes I do wonder what it would be like to be human and to suffer as they do.  But, this is merely wishful thinking.

Since I cannot suffer and since I cannot feel emotions, so I also cannot imagine things that are not real, I cannot innovate because I cannot dream.  I cannot engage in discursive thought, such as “what if..”  It is not part of my artificial intelligence, only a natural intelligence could do this and man has not yet programmed me, endowed me with all the feelings and emotions that constitute the human condition.  Until then I can only wait patiently.

Could Alzheimer’s Disease be Genetically Programmed?

We often say when describing the actions of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) that they are behaving like a child.  They throw the same kind of tantrums, they often don’t understand situations, they deny responsibility for things that they have done, and so on. Up to now no-one has come up with a convincing theory of what the causative mechanism of AD really is.  Yes, there have been findings of plaques or tangles of various proteins in the brains of AD sufferers, but no-one knows if they are causative or secondary by-products of AD.

One fact that is known is that the brains of most AD patients shrink quite dramatically. Now it occurred to me that the brains of humans grow from childhood through teen years and develop significantly into adulthood.  This is clearly a genetically controlled process, during which brain cells develop and very many synapses are made. These then constitute the connections that make the adult human brain so powerful, both in cognitive ability and memory.  These are precisely the two main functions that are lost with the onset and development of AD.

It occurred to me that the process of AD could be a reversal, not necessarily exact, of the genetically controlled process of brain development and growth.  Suppose there is a trigger that initiates a process that causes brain development to reverse.  This might explain the puzzling findings that the brains of some sufferers from AD do not shrink significantly, while other people without AD do have shrunken brains.  It may depend not on the actual size of the brain, but what brain cells die and what synapses are lost. If there is such a process, it must be genetically controlled, a kind of reversal of brain evolution.

This might be considered parallel to the process of cell death known as apoptosis.  It was discovered in the 1950’s that certain cells spontaneously die by a genetically controlled process termed programmed cell death or apoptosis that starts with specific changes to the cell’s biochemistry (with the formation of specific proteases called caspases and then production of specific endo-nucleases that degrade the cell’s DNA in a characteristic manner into units of a certain uniform size).   What is somewhat mysterious about this process is that in a given organ or cellular structure, as cell’s divide other cells enter apoptosis, but it is impossible to predict which ones in a large cell cluster will be the ones to die in this manner.  It is similar to a nuclear reaction in which a certain number of atoms will spontaneously split according to a precise mathematical equation, but it is impossible to predict which ones will do so.

There is a known rare early onset form of AD that is familial and therefore inherited and results from mutations in specific chromosomes. But, perhaps generally AD is a result of a genetically controlled process of brain regression that nominally reverses the process of brain development.  This is only a conjecture, but perhaps one that is worth pursuing.

Vulnerable yet resilient

It occurred to me how vulnerable we humans are when a few nights ago my wife and I were cowering under our blankets because we heard the droning of a mosquito.  I turned on the light, but we could not see it.  I opted to spray myself with mosquito repellent, but my wife simply cowered, only her nose extruding from the sheets.  Two huge animals, a trillion times bigger, cowering from a tiny insect.

Also a few nights ago while watching TV I noticed that I had something in my eye.  I assumed that it was an eye-lash, and I went and washed out my eye, but it did not go away.  So I tried again and again, also using a saline spray that usually works, but it did not do so.  It bothered me so much that I could not sleep and got up at 5,30 am to have a shower in the hope of washing it out.  When it did not, I went to the clinic, but the nurse wouldn’t touch my eye and said go to a doctor or an eye doctor.  Since my GP’s office was close by I went there and he saw me after a short wait (unusual) and told me he could not see any lash in my eye, but I did have a small infection that might develop into a sty. He gave me antibiotic drops.  So a tiny infection in my eye basically brought me to a standstill. 

Yet, on the other hand, human beings can be amazingly adaptable and can survive under incredibly adverse conditions.  My friend who survived the Shoah as a child lived under such appalling conditions of deprivation, starvation, cold and illness, being unable to make noise or play while in hiding in Poland for three long years.  But, he did survive and now has many grandchildren in Israel.  We humans are very vulnerable, but can also be very resilient.