Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Pluto 2.0 – The New Ninth Planet

At several points in human history, short-sighted people have prematurely declared the end of the age of discovery. In 1900, the otherwise brilliant physicist, known to history as Lord Kelvin, allegedly claimed that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; all that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Five years later, an obscure patent clerk named Albert Einstein seemingly wandered out of the woods to publish something called the “Theory of Relativity.” But Lord Kelvin shouldn’t beat himself up too badly, the New York times suggested, in 1903, that it might take mathematicians and engineers between one and ten million years to develop a true flying machine – the exact same year the Wright brothers first took to the sky. Actually, the New York Times has something of a history of being caught with their foot in their mouth, claiming in 1920 that a rocket would never be powerful enough to escape Earth’s atmosphere.

The reasons for these hilariously bad predictions are debatable. It could be that the predictors had doubt in the cleverness of mankind or fear of the unknown. It might even be that the people we remember for their lack of prescience were simply overconfident in the scientists that came before them, assuming that with such brilliant minds at work for so long, we must have completed all the work that isn’t really, very, ridiculously hard. The truth, however, is that the amount of stuff we don’t know is kind of incredible. Case in point: our own solar system.

If you think we have a pretty good understanding of things like our sun, moon, and planetary neighbours, you’ve been misled by overconfident elementary school maps of the solar system. If you don’t believe me, ask any of the map-makers who, in 2006, had to scramble to remove a lonely snowball named Pluto from the list of recognized planets. Although, now you might have a hard time getting them on the phone because they’re probably trying to figure out how to deal with the supposed real ninth planet that astronomers at the Caltech found evidence of last week.

Yes that’s right. Only a decade after pulling out their collective erasers, planet counters are preparing to adjust the planetary census once again. Researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown – the very man most responsible for downgrading Pluto to a dwarf planet – reported on January 20 that they have very good reason to believe we’ve been overlooking something substantial at the edge of our star system. Apparently, somewhere in the darkness around 25 times further away as Pluto, lurks a planet that is 10 times the mass of the Earth. So how did we miss it?

Well, for starters, saying it is 25 times further away than Pluto doesn’t really do justice to how distant this thing actually is. Pluto is 7.5 billion kilometers (4.7 billion miles) away from us. The New Horizons spacecraft, that has been sending us pretty pictures of Pluto for the past year or so, took a decade to get there. Using our fastest, most modern spaceflight technology, it would take at least half a century to get to where the uncreatively labelled 'Planet Nine' is supposedly hiding. A second, and related, reason we haven’t discovered it sooner, is that when you get that far from Earth, the Sun isn’t much more than a rather bright star in the blackness of a permanent night. That means that Planet Nine gets very little light it can reflect back to our telescopes.

In fact, we still haven’t actually discovered Planet Nine; we just have hints that it exists. Brown and Batygin have been looking at half a dozen objects located in the Kuiper Belt – Pluto’s celestial neighbourhood – and discovered that they are drifting around on a plane that is out of line with the rest of our solar system, yet seemingly in line with some other object’s gravitational force, strongly suggesting that something big and close by is bullying them with its gravity. The astronomers used a computer model to see what the gravitational effect of a large planet in the outer solar system would have on these objects and the results matched what they observed exactly. It’s a bit like looking at the ripples in a pond and inferring that something recently fell in the water. You can’t be positive, but you can be pretty sure.

So all that we are waiting for now is our first sighting. Brown predicts it could happen in the next five years, possibly. We can’t be sure though. Planet Nine’s orbit – if it exists – is massive. It takes between 12,000 and 20,000 years to orbit the Sun and astronomers will have to look at every piece of that orbit to find where it is. That is a lot of sky. Thankfully, that gives us some time to think of a better name.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Sketchy Fact #110: He's odd, but I've Sea-n Otter

Sea otters have the densest fur in the animal kingdom with as many as 1,000,000 hairs per square inch of skin. The dense fur keeps them warm in cold water even though they lack the blubber of their sea lion cousins.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Phantom Limb Syndrome: Haunted by the Hand that Isn’t There

Your brain and the rest of your body are connected in ways that are sometimes tough to comprehend. It’s not something we think about as we go about our lives, but the sensations we feel in our hands, feet, face, chest, and everywhere else represent a partnership that is kind of amazing. Even as you read this, your brain and the parts of your body in contact with whatever you are sitting, standing, or leaning on are producing a symphony of experiences that ranges from comfortable to horribly painful. But occasionally, even the most practiced of orchestras can slip out of tune. When that happens between the mind and the body, the results can be downright perplexing.

Imagine that you are hard at work on your wheat farm when, all of a sudden, your tractor hits a bump, turns over, and crushes your arm. You are rushed to the hospital by your loyal assistant farmer, where you learn that the damage to your arm is too severe and it will need to be amputated. You are sedated, wheeled into an operating room, and wake up sans limb. The speed with which this can all happen is way beyond what your brain is able to deal with, both emotionally and structurally. The upshot is that for the vast majority of people who lose some part of their body (some doctors estimate up to 80%), the experience of being fully intact does not end with amputation.

Phantom limb syndrome is something people have been dealing with since we began lopping off each other’s arms and legs, and was first described by French surgeon Ambroise ParĂ© in 1552. ParĂ© worked with soldiers who lost limbs in battle, only to complain of sensations ranging from pins and needles to excruciating pain in parts of their body that no longer existed. Over the centuries our understanding of this affliction has evolved, but is still far from complete. What we know is that the problem stems from the way our brains map our bodies.

As we’ve already learned, when a part of your body (ex. your hand) touches something, neurons beginning at the point of contact travel through your body, up your spinal cord, and into your brain. The brain interprets the contact and produces an appropriate feeling (pain, heat, cold, etc.) that you experience at the point of contact, even though it is all going down in your head. There are physical pieces of your brain that correspond to every part of your body, internal and external, and just because you lose one of those parts to a tractor or a lion or whatever, doesn’t mean that the part of your brain that is partnered to it also goes away. As that piece of brain matter tries to make sense of something that doesn’t exist, the confusion results in the feelingof pain.

So how can we treat pain in a non-existent part of the body? The short answer is we basically try everything, giving preference to treatments that don’t involve surgery or causing any more harm. Therapies begin with massaging the area of amputation and extend to the use of painkillers, electric shock therapy, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and physiotherapy (flex the limb that isn’t there, etc.). Some anaesthetics and hormones, when used prior to amputation, can reduce the likelihood of pain developing, but once it occurs, the best approach will vary from person to person.

Fans of the TV show House M.D. may be familiar with another, extremely clever, treatment that was developed in the 1990’s which involves outsmarting a person’s own brain. The philosophy behind the so-called “mirror box therapy” is that if the brain can trick someone into feeling a limb that isn’t there, it might be possible to use the old double fake-out on a person’s brain and convince it that the limb has actually been there the whole time. The way it works is that you build a box without a ceiling and create two evenly spaced holes on one side of the box to put your limbs (one whole, and one less-than-whole) through. Then, place a mirror down the centre that splits the box into two with a hole for each compartment and the mirror facing the side on which the whole limb will go. When viewed at a certain angle, it looks like the less-than-whole limb is actually a whole one, due to the mirroring of the real whole limb. By visually tricking the brain into thinking the phantom limb is there, a person can learn to control it such that it diminishes or completely eliminates the painful sensations. The process takes times and there hasn’t been a whole lot of research into why it can work, but many patients report long-term improvements… though not as fast as the guy on House.