From the mouths of babes

Did you know that newborns sometimes vomit blood, even when perfectly healthy?

I sure didn’t, nor did my sister. So when this happened, she took her newborn daughter straightaway to the doctor. He explained that this was likely due to my niece having swallowed blood during the birthing process, and in fact nothing to be alarmed about. “How long does this last?” she asked anxiously. “Up to about seven days,” he noted.

I did some more investigation and learned that, indeed, the most likely cause of blood in a newborn’s vomit is “maternal blood”, either swallowed during delivery or from “cracked, raw nipples from breastfeeding”. (Ouch.) While the blood can come from the baby itself, this is actually much less common (although I didn’t find any stats on it); “The Newborn Child” by Johnston et al. agrees. Here’s an interesting case-study-esque version of how a doctor might diagnose such cases. It also describes the diagnostic test (“Apt test”) that is used to determine whether the blood is from the mother or the baby (the latter contains “fetal hemoglobin”). Rather than just citing the name of the test, the same source actually tells you how it works: mix the blood sample with sodium hydroxide, which breaks down adult hemoglobin (turning the sample dark brown) but will have less impact on fetal hemoglobin (which will stay pink). I really appreciate sources (particularly medical ones) that bother to explain the science behind the process, diagnosis, or treatment!

Pleasurable sentences

“Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?”
— Gertrude Stein

This quote was cited by Dr. Brooks Landon in the very first lecture of my new class, Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft. He conducted an interesting exploration of the quote and its possible meanings, and then assigned me homework: to list a few sentences that I find pleasurable. What a delightful idea! However, I quickly found that I had trouble separating my emotional response, or affinity for the sentiment expressed by a sentence, from the sentence itself giving me “pleasure” — but then I realized that that was one of his points in the lecture, that he feels you actually can’t separate a sentence’s form from its meaning, and the choice of phrasing does, in fact, alter the message being communicated.

After some musing, here’s what I came up with:

“I cannot read the fiery letters,” said Frodo in a quavering voice. — J.R.R. Tolkien
This sentence is so visually evocative for me that it can’t help being a pleasure. Frodo’s phrasing is also perfect (“cannot” instead of “can’t”, and I just love the term “fiery letters”).
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. — William Butler Yeats
This sentiment really resonates with me, and I think Yeats hit on an eloquent pair of analogies to express it. I also like the parallel construction in the two clauses.
The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself. — Henry Miller
How true it is. And each time I read this sentence, I find myself briefly lost in imagining the world inside a blade of grass — a neat magic trick executed by Mr. Miller!
Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company. — George Gordon Byron
I have many quotes on the merits of solitude. This is one of my favorites, and it evokes many happy memories of lounging on my porch, writing letters to distant friends, and feeling as if they were sitting with me, sharing deep conversation in person. I like this sentence for its juxtaposition of apparent antonyms, which yields insight into how they can, in fact, be combined.
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You, too? Thought I was the only one. — C.S. Lewis
Again, this one really resonates with me. But I also really like his phrasing, which ably captures the combined feelings of surprise and delight when you strike up a new friendship.
May serendipity enter your door without knocking (but also without using a crowbar). — Elizabeth Vaughan
This sentence was occasioned by a real experience with a real crowbar and my own real front door, but I think it stands quite well on its own even without that memory. The roughness of “crowbar” coming as it does at the end of an otherwise smooth and graceful sentence is like a sudden exhalation that always makes me chuckle.
And a sweet and powerful positive obsession blunts pain, diverts rage, and engages each of us in the greatest, the most intense of our chosen struggles. — Lauren Oya Olamina (Octavia Butler)
It’s always a pleasure when someone provides at least the appearance of a justification for our obsessions.

What sentences bring you pleasure?

Meanwhile, I’m eagerly anticipating the remaining 23 lectures in this series. Thank you, Teaching Company!

Frozen stars

Escape velocity, as we know, is the speed at which an object must travel to be released from another object’s gravitational field. It depends on the mass of the second object and how far apart the two are. We’re familiar with velocities calculated for escaping planets or stars, but in fact they can be calculated for any collection of objects: a solar system, a galaxy, the universe. While we may escape the Earth, or the sun, or the solar system, or even the galaxy, today I listened to Dr. Richard Wolfson posit that the escape velocity of the universe might well exceed the speed of light, rendering us forever trapped within its immense gravity well. (He did not elaborate on what might possibly be “outside” the universe for us to visit.) Even more interesting is that, if the escape velocity does exceed the speed of light, then the universe itself meets the definition of a black hole. We could all be living inside a black hole with such a large diameter that we haven’t (yet) felt any distorting forces (“tides”) that would be created by whatever and wherever its center would be. On the other hand, if the universe has infinite extent then it isn’t even meaningful to talk about “escaping” it. [Image by Don Dixon.]

I was listening to the other lecture on the sampler CD from The Teaching Company, which was lecture 15 from “Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution.” This was an interesting contrast to the great books lecture on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For one thing, I knew more about the basic subject here (general relativity and black holes) than I did with Gibbon. But it was still thoroughly enjoyable and a fun educational experience.

Dr. Wolfson used the word “gravitating” in an unusual (to me) fashion: he employed it as an adjective to describe an object that exerts a gravitational field. I’m more familiar with it used as a verb, as one object may “gravitate” towards another. It seems a little odd to bother with it as an adjective, since isn’t every object in the universe “gravitating”?

He also made a nice point about the common conception that black holes sit around “sucking things up”. As he pointed out, the black hole has no more gravitational force than the object(s) it originally came from–mass is mass. What’s special about black holes is that their mass is compressed into a small enough volume that the escape velocity ramps up past that magical number, c. “Regular” objects avoid this phenomenon by filling more space; gravitational force falls off as distance squared, keeping us all safe from such extremes. But a black hole and a planet with the same total mass exert the same gravitational force at a distance. So long as you’re outside a black hole’s event horizon, you’re just as safe as you would be if it were a whole and healthy planet.

One last interesting tidbit: our term, “black hole”, focuses on the inability of light to escape from the object. But the Russians’ word for it instead captures the notion that (from the outside perspective) time inside the black hole slows down… and stops. They call them “frozen stars.”

Tortoises and turtles, crocodiles and alligators

What changes are needed to move from an aquatic existence to one on dry land? According to David Attenborough, a watertight skin, eggs with a hard shell, and stronger skeletal support to combat gravity. The differences between an amphibian’s egg and a tortoise’s egg also go more than shell deep: the embryo has to excrete waste, which in the water is naturally dispersed through the (permeable) egg membrane. On land, embryos instead develop an allantois (from the Greek word for “sausage”), which not only stores waste, but also permits the embryos to breathe. They need oxygen, and again in the water this would occur naturally through the membrane — but with a shell, that’s not possible. The allantois, however, presses against the shell strongly enough to exchange gas, and the embryo is connected to the allantois with blood vessels to treat it somewhat like a lung. Wow.

According to the wikipedia entry, human fetuses also have an allantois, which is inside the umbilical cord!

Darwin was first inspired about natural selection when observing the strikingly different tortoise shell shapes observed in the Galapagos Islands — distinct enough that a tortoise’s home island could be immediately inferred from its shell (well, or its taste):

The inhabitants, as I have said, state that they can distinguish the tortoises from the different islands; and that they differ not only in size, but in other characters. Captain Porter has described those from Charles and from the nearest island to it, namely, Hood Island, as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish saddle, whilst the tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked. — Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches, 1845, p. 394

Unfortunately, he didn’t record carefully enough which island each of his specimens came from, so on his return to England he instead used the less dramatic finch-beak example to illustrate his theory. He himself knew almost nothing about birds; his servant Covington collected the finches, and John Gould back in England identified and catalogued them. It’s useful to have smart, industrious friends (and servants)!

Tortoises live mostly on the land, while turtles live in the water. You can immediately see the differences; tortoises have short stumpy legs, for walking, while turtles have flipper/paddle limbs for swimming. It’s the turtles’ bad luck that they still have to struggle out of water up onto land to lay their eggs when they breed — no mean feat!

Attenborough’s book next has a chapter on crocodiles (lower teeth are visible when the mouth is closed) and alligators (lower teeth are invisible when the mouth is closed). Apparently their teeth are good for gripping prey, but not sharp enough to cut it into bites, so they rip by spinning their bodies around the (dead) prey, then have to rise up above the water to swallow the meat, because they “have no lips” to keep water out of their stomachs if they swallow. It’s amazing they ever get anything eaten.

Finally, crocodiles have very long courtship and mating processes, which often involve blowing bubbles at each other to indicate interest.

What a great book! Next up are the lizards, my favorite.

(Other things I learned from “Life in Cold Blood” by David Attenborough: Amphibians and their alien adaptations)

Can Gibbon change my life?

It’s the story of a world superpower that reached its height and then was felled by corruption (from its extreme wealth) and inattention to local threats (due to embroilment in the Middle East). Not contemporary news, not science fiction, but Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. I haven’t read this book, but after a fascinating lecture on it today, I’m eager to get my hands on a copy.

This lecture, by Dr. J. Rufus Fears, comes from the “Books that have made history: Books that can change your life” course that was included on a sampler CD I recently received from The Teaching Company. In my opinion, the lecture is polished and engrossing enough to elevate it above “lecture” to “oration.” Dr. Fears posits that Gibbon identified two causes for the Empire’s fall, as noted above. (The “local threats” were the incursions by the Teutons (pre-French, pre-Germans) who, along with Iran’s religiously fanatical hordes, invaded the Roman Empire). These factors alone would make for relevant reading, but there may be more to it. The wikipedia page on The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire claims instead that Gibbon attributed the decline to 1) a “loss of civic virtue” in its citizens (brought on by wealth and prosperity) 2) the influence of Christianity (belief in an afterlife rendering citizens less concerned with the present, and pacifist tendencies weakening the “Roman martial spirit”). The latter seems to have made him especially unpopular (despite the otherwise runaway success of the book). Now I definitely want to take a look myself and see where he most strongly attributes the blame.

Dr. Fears also cites the work as being worth reading for the quality of its prose, noting that Winston Churchill claimed to have “learned to write” by reading Gibbon. High praise indeed!

Gibbon himself presents an interesting historical figure. He decided to write on the subject of Rome in the years before the American Revolution, and he was writing during the Revolution itself, and also serving in the British Parliament. He seems to have had some strong views about how England should be handling the situation (based on what can be seen in similar historical situations, and particularly that of the Roman Empire), but rarely spoke out about them in public, and always voted with Lord North (then the Prime Minister of England, and a strong force in opposition to the colonies). He also felt that if civilization ever failed in Europe, at least it could be carried forward in America.

This one definitely goes on my “to-read” list (or at least “to-sample”). You can read it yourself starting with Chapter 1 from Project Gutenberg or listen to Chapter 1 from librivox (19 hours, 50 minutes running time). And then I want to go back and re-read Sheri Tepper’s book, “Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.” Enjoyment is all the richer when you have the full context.