Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103-year-old neuroscientist and all-around impressive individual, has passed away this weekend. (2012 has been a bad year to be a personal hero of mine, statistically.)
Graduating medical school in 1930s Italy as a Jewish woman, Levi-Montalcini faced unbelievable amounts of adversity from the beginning of her academic career. Nonetheless, she went on to share the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is crucial to the survival of many neurons, and is therefore a focus of ongoing research into disorders where cell growth is abnormal, including dementia.
While her loss remains a loss to us all, Levi-Montalcini was also the first Nobel Laureate to reach 100 years of age, and if that’s not the best that can be hoped for in a lifetime, I don’t know what is.
The Guardian has a profile that is well worth a read. The following is my favorite passage:
“Making her own microsurgical and tissue-manipulating equipment – using, among other things, reshaped domestic sewing needles and modified watchmaker’s tweezers — she began her fruitful investigation into normal and abnormal neural development and its mechanisms of control. Discovery of her activities could have resulted in imprisonment or death, but she attracted little interest by buying fertile eggs to investigate the early phases of nerve growth in chick embryos. As a bonus to concealment, many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”
Today was the 75th birthday of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who, on June 16, 1963, became the first woman in space. After a gap of nearly 20 years, the second woman in space was Svetlana Savitskaya, in 1982, followed by the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, in 1983. This is a fairly decent article about Tereshkova’s journey and current life (though be warned of loud ads).
She also had space hair, but to be fair I think everyone did in the 1960s.
Tereshkova’s call sign on Vostok 6 was “Chaika,” or “Seagull,” incidentally the name of my second-favorite Chekhov play. Happy birthday to a brave woman, and here’s hoping both of us live to see man land on Mars.
Once again I’ve abandoned you all for weeks. Midterms plus interviews plus presentations plus pointlessly raging against politics leaves little time for blogging.
But there’s so much exciting STUFF going on, so this is sort of a round-up post.
- Oxygen detected in the atmosphere of one of Saturn’s moons. Dione, not Titan. Which brings us to….
- The Sirens of Titan. I’m on a Kurt Vonnegut kick. I last read most of his books about five years ago, and picked up Cat’s Cradle up at the library a couple weeks ago on a whim. And everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
- Probably the reason I needed so badly to read some Vonnegut was that the last book I read was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Which I highly recommend, and all, but which is not something you want to read if you’re looking to feel good about yourself as a member of the human race or of the biological sciences. For my money, the two most important things civilization has given us are science and basic human rights (fancy coffee drinks are a close third). So what happens when those two fundamental values clash? Nothing light-hearted enough to be reading during midterms, that’s for sure.
- But if you want to feel good about something humanity has done, may I suggest our treatment of baby sloths with little teddy bears and bandages that look like jammies? (Preceded, I am afraid, by an advertisement)
- And finally, in case certain ongoing incidents are making you, like me, feel kind of down about the whole history of mankind along with the future of both your gender and your chosen career, and in case the baby sloths did not provide a permanent fix, let me just point out that you are made of atoms whose emergent properties can rather conveniently be altered by atoms that have formed molecules like caffeine or ethanol. So, being alive? All in all, pretty cool.
Apparently there’s been a story making the rounds lately, about a dozen junior high and high school girls in New York with what is being diagnosed as conversion disorder, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in tics and other motor or sensory symptoms, for which you would normally expect a biological (rather than psychological) interpretation. The disorder on display in New York doesn’t appear to be traditionally contagious, or caused by environmental factors. Naturally, this makes people a little nervous.
Being a firm if somewhat facetious believer in House’s definition of “idiopathic” — “from the Latin meaning we’re idiots ’cause we can’t figure out what’s causing it” — I was skeptical. But the school district, department of health, and related agencies have conducted what appears to be a pretty thorough check on all the other possible causes, as seen in this report. Some of the highlights (what, you don’t want to read an 8-page scientific report in your spare time?) follow:
- The 12 cases have nothing in common save for their school, which has been checked for environmental factors that could have caused the symptoms, and their gender.
- 1 of the 12 cases had a preexisting diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome, and 2 other cases had earlier diagnoses of other illnesses associated with tics.
- The cases have been dispersed and ongoing over the past seven months.
- The time course of the cases indicates that it was NOT (repeat: was NOT) linked with Gardisil or any other vaccination.
- Of the 12 cases, 8 were examined by a pediatric neurologist. All 8 of those cases had experienced “significant life stressors.” (This one seems to be the big blinking red lights sign, at least from my point of view.)
This set of letters sent to the Hayden Planetarium in the early 1950s regarding reservations for the first interplanetary travel kills me. It may be the best thing in the universe. (Until this, that is.)
This drawing is the best. Saturn even has a ring around it!
Then there are letters that reflect a serious time commitment:
I hope this was the inspiration for some kind of science fiction. Click the image to see more details.
I love this next one because snarky-17-year-old-me would have totally gotten along with this snarky-17-year-old-from-the-1950s. If you look through the entire slideshow, it seems that a lot of the writers are around 17. Mars: a valid alternative to college?
"P.S. I would like to get out of this world before the H-Bomb blows it sky-high."
And then some small part of my brain that eschews morbid humor for just-plain-morbid yells “All of these people are probably dead and we’ve never been to Mars and you’re already 22!” Ahem.
"... and as these jaunts may not be feasible during my lifetime, I'd like to list my children as future rocket riders."
BUT the real point is: whether now or in 1950, your average civilian is ready to drop everything to go to Mars. And that is unquestionably a positive thing.
"And until I am in a rocket heading for the far off space, I won't be content."