The Cyril Smith Incident

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Scope Correspondent
On August 12, 1948, Senator Bourke Hickenlooper was horrified to learn that the secrets of the American atomic energy program were about to be spilled to a roomful of foreign scientists. He sped into action, requesting an emergency meeting with the Secretary of Defense. “Some of the most vital of our weapons secrets were about to be disclosed in full,” he later recounted. He and the Secretary moved immediately to stop the man responsible for the leak.

According to a letter Hickenlooper had been given, that man was one Cyril Stanley Smith. Someone in the Atomic Energy Commission had authorized Smith, a scientist, to visit a British research center and discuss “the basic metallurgy of plutonium.” In 1948, just three years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked the world, wartime fears were far from subsided. The growing Soviet Union had begun to raise its threatening head, and even allies such as Britain and the United States had only just loosened some restrictions on the exchange of scientific information. But according to the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, that exchange was forbidden to include specifics about the development of American nuclear technology. Full Article »

The Radium Worked Fine Until His Bum Lit Up Like A Glow Worm

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Scope Correspondent
On March 30, 1932, the wealthy chairman of a Pittsburgh steel company, Eben Byers, was pronounced dead. The passing of this high-profile socialite and alleged “ladies man,” sent federal agencies and medical authorities into a bit of a panic. Radioactive materials, it turned out, were not things one should eat for lunch.

Byers had bought into the latest in “homeopathic” trends, radium-infused products. Radium is actually present in small quantities in almost all plants, animals, rock, soil and even water. But it was its presence in natural hot springs, considered by many to have curative properties, that kick-started the element into celebrity. In an effort to cure a golf injury, Byers adopted the religious habit of downing several bottles a day of the popular and delicious Radithor. Radiothor was an early form of smart water, but instead of your day’s worth of vitamins, the elixir delivered “certified radioactive water.” “New Substance, Declared to be Cheap and Efficacious in Many Diseases, Shown to Doctors,” read a 1909 New York Times headline on the product.

Radium was cool and everybody was doing it. French women were putting it on their faces in creams. Watches and military instruments used it for its glow-in-the-dark effect. A European company was plunking it in their bread, and another was using it to spruce up their chocolate. Radium toothpaste graced supermarket shelves promising to “load cells with new life.” Even James John “Jimmy” Walker, New York’s incumbent mayor, was home-brewing his own radium water. Full Article »

You, the Reader, Will Die

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Scope Correspondent

A review of The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers – How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death by Dick Teresi
368 pages. Random House, 2012

Dick Teresi will hold your hand, incite you to argument, and dare you to contradict him. But first, he needs to be perfectly blunt. “You, the reader, will die,” he proclaims within the first five pages. He wants you to think about death as much as he does, which is quite a lot, according to his therapist who declares him not so much clinically depressed as exceptionally morbid. But for Teresi, it’s not so interesting that you’ll die but rather, how we’ll know you’re dead.

Known for his journalistic musings on the God Particle and our understanding of the number zero, in his humorous and extensively researched third book, The Undead, Teresi tackles how modern society and its past counterparts have decided when people are dead. As it turns out, it’s not nearly as straightforward as it sounds and most people can’t tell the difference between a dead guy and a plate of jello (really, they have similar brain scan readings). While he states at the beginning of the book, “My job as a journalist is to reveal data. You can do with that information what you wish,” it is clear he has strong opinions on the matter. Full Review »

The Black Thread of Physics

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Scope Correspondent

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.” So said detective Sherlock Holmes whose debut at the close of the nineteenth century in A Study In Scarlet coincided with a discovery that would become the black thread of physics, a mystery whose knots and tangles remain unexposed. That discovery, now known as matter’s twin, was antimatter.

Matter, quite simply, matters. Broken down to its smallest parts, it’s a bunch of miniscule particles. (What kind of particles? Elementary, my dear Watson.) Matter is the stuff that you, your house, 221B Baker Street, and the whole entire universe is made of. Except, there’s something more. The universe, we’ve now discovered, also contains a tricky substance called antimatter. Also made of individual particles, antimatter, though rare, can be produced by objects as varied as cosmic rays and decaying radioactive substances.

Sometimes referred to as matter’s equal but opposite, antimatter is the devious Moriarty to matter’s shrewd Holmes. Like these two intellectual rivals, anti-matter insists on being perfectly contrary to matter. Where a proton, for example, prides itself on its positive electrical charge, its antimatter mate, the antiproton, teasingly possesses a negative charge. And the negative electron finds its antimatter twin is the aptly named positron. Where matter says positive, antimatter cries negative and where matter demands negative, antimatter insists on positive. Full Article »

The Grand Puzzle

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Scope Correspondent

A review of The Species Seekers, by Richard Conniff
464 pages, W. W. Norton 2010

Last week brought word of several new discoveries in the animal kingdom: leaf-cutter bees in Texas, transparent fish in Brazil; mouse-like lemurs in Madagascar; spiders in Sri Lanka described (worrisomely, to this reader at least) as “face-sized.” It should hardly come as a surprise that novel forms of life continue to crop up. Scientists identify over 15,000 new species each year, making it highly likely that another fascinating critter will have been uncovered in the time it takes you to finish reading the morning newspaper.

And yet, no matter how many times we hear of such discoveries, each one still carries a thrill, a small feeling of delight. For who doesn’t enjoy it when another exotic member of our teeming menagerie is uncovered? This instinct is an old one; humans have long sought to compile encyclopedic knowledge of all creatures great and small. From Aristotle’s earliest biological sketches, to the richly illustrated bestiaries of the Middle Ages (which included fantastical sea monsters and unicorns drawn from apocryphal stories), to the sixteenth century zoological work of Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, progress was consistent if uneven up until Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his first rigorous taxonomical classifications in 1735. Full Review »

Should Your Cat Glow?

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Scope Correspondent

A review of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes
256 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An unusual cat lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. Named Mr. Green Genes, he looks like your average orange tabby. But under dark light, he has a neat parlor trick: his eyes, nose, and ears glow green, Rudolph-the-reindeer style. This is because scientists tinkered with his DNA to include a jellyfish gene for fluorescence. Although a silly outcome, it was a serious study monitoring how the glow gene would express itself in foreign species.

In recent decades, other house cats have been subject to seemingly strange science experiments. They have been cloned, surgically altered to include microphone implants, and given pirate-peg-leg-looking prosthetics limbs. These feline Frankensteins offer a taste of the wild things people are doing to animals these days in the name of science, wildlife conservation, medicine, national security, consumerism, and animal love. In her riveting first book, Frankenstein’s Cat, Emily Anthes explores these colorful cats and a menagerie of other animals—from dogs to goldfish, dolphins to seabirds, goats to grizzly bears—at the forefront of this animal biotechnology explosion. Full Review »

The Race to Give X-ray Vision to Medicine

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Scope Correspondent
If you asked a radiologist which American first applied the use of X rays in medicine, his answer would depend on his loyalty, whether it is to Dartmouth, Yale, or perhaps even MIT. However, the radiologist would have to concede that X rays themselves were discovered in Germany.

Late Friday, November 8, 1895, the physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had his moment of inspiration in a University of Würzburg laboratory. He was tinkering, as geniuses do, with a Crookes tube, a glass tube enclosing a low pressure gas. After covering the tube, he placed a barium platinocyanide plate on the one side he had left open. He then applied an electric current through the tube. Röntgen noticed that the plate fluoresced, a clue that something was emanating from within the tube. He eventually called them X rays in his famous December 28 publication. For this work, Röntgen was awarded in 1901 the very first Nobel Prize in Physics.

Röntgen had in a way invented a telescope, but he didn’t realize the galaxies that resided ahead. Using X rays in clinical diagnosis, bequeathing a new sight to medicine, was for someone else to achieve. Full Article »

A New Theory on the Origin of Indo-European Languages

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Scope Correspondent

Five thousand years ago, marauding waves of nomadic horsemen swept out of the bleak Caspian steppes across Eurasia. The Kurgans, as they’re now called, were a warring culture who imposed their leadership and language on large swathes of people. From its violent origins, their tongue would give rise to the world’s most successful language family—at least according to one theory among linguists.

Proto-Indo-European was the ancestral language that, over millennia, branched into hundreds of languages spoken by 45 percent of the world’s population, including English, Hindi, Russian, and Urdu. The location of its birth has been the subject of fiery debate for centuries.

A fascinating and contentious new study in Science supports an origins theory that couldn’t be more different from the Kurgan hypothesis. In this alternate scenario, the proto-language spread and evolved not through conquest, but rather with the gradual, peaceful expansion of agriculture out of present-day Turkey.

The research team reached this conclusion through the innovative use of computational models borrowed from evolutionary biology. Languages, like DNA, mutate at measurable rates. If you can trace the evolution of similar words across different languages, you should be able to project backwards to identify their points of divergence and ultimate origins. Full Article »

Dr. Riley’s Crossing

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The patient came to Boston City Hospital in fall 1929 after two weeks of difficulty urinating, when he noticed “a watery foul-smelling pus coming from an opening just above the pubis.” The patient was a 52-year-old African-American man, likely poor in money and education, who arrived in the urologist’s office pale and weak, reeking of urine and rotting flesh. The doctor, the same age as his patient, was a urologist and Harvard professor, graduate of Oberlin College ’03 and Harvard Medical School ’07. Dr. Augustus Riley lived at a posh address in Boston, 857 Beacon Street, and went golfing on weekends with other physicians. Dr. Riley would publish an account of this surgery in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A surgical photo shows the scrotum of this African-American male. Dr. Riley’s paper doesn’t mention the race of his patient, but you can tell from the dark pigmentation of his hand, holding up the hospital gown to expose his “gangrenous peritoneum.” In the black-and-white photograph, now in the archives at Harvard’s Countway Medical Library, the patient’s abdomen is punctured with holes, his penis attached to the catheter that saved his life. The nasty-looking gashes to the right of the patient’s belly-button are the surgical treatment for urinary extravasacation: incisions of the abdominal wall to drain urine that has leaked out of the vasa, or tubes, poisoning the abdomen. The resulting gangrene, without the aid of modern antibiotics, almost certainly killed him, according to present-day surgeon Dr. Norman McGowin. But such cases nevertheless required documentation and attempts at treatment.

Dr. Riley published this article at the height of his career as a surgeon and professor in Boston. But his life at Harvard was only possible because the doctor hid a secret. On the day this photo was taken in 1929, the patient was not the only black man in the room.

Gus Riley’s mother, Sallie McCreary, was born a slave.

Full Article »

The Twilight Zone

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Scope Correspondent

In an experimental physics lab in 1995, scientists manufactured an abode that would feel at ease in the twilight zone. This is a curious place where temperatures are so cold the human body cannot fathom (one billionth of a degree above the coldest conceivable level, absolute zero). And in this insufferable cold, matter, as we know it, transforms into something radically new and perplexing: the Bose-Einstein condensate.

In our everyday lives, we encounter matter in three states: solids, liquids, gases. At different temperatures, matter can exist in one of those forms. Take water, for example. At room temperature, approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit, water flows out of the tap. But if you fill up an ice tray and place it in the freezer, where the temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, the water slowly crystalizes into solid cubes of ice. Or, if you fill up a pot and put it on the stove, the water heats up. At 212 degrees Fahrenheit, boiling starts and molecules evaporate into a gas—that is, steam.

These three states of matter share a basic property: their atoms always take up space. For example, you cannot fit two ice cubes into the same hollow of an ice tray. There is simply no room; the ice cubes would somehow have to overlap in space for this to work. Full Article »

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