Tag Archives: Science

Motley Microfiction: Love in the Time of Asteroids

A broken line. A space station accident. Laura died the way she’d lived: unattached and alone.

Obedient to inertia, her frozen form hurled through the infinite void. She flirted briefly with passing asteroids, but lacking mutual gravitational attraction, Laura spurned her heavenly suitors and pressed onward.

Finally she locked in orbit with a yellow star. Stray gases coalesced. She grew, accumulating mass, becoming a planet with a woman’s heart.

And after a billion years alone, she brought forth life: one cell. Alone, like her.

Laura wept inside. A billion years to create life. Only 3.6 billion more until love evolved.

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Galaxies in alignment. (Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-)

Thanks to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, I’ve developed an addictive habit of staring at pictures of space, particularly those from the Hubble Telescope Gallery. These pictures both fascinate and terrify me. I gaze at them and feel like the ground’s falling away beneath my feet, but instead of falling, I’m soaring. It has something to do with the sheer scope of what I’m looking at: a picture of something so vast, my brain has no better way to deal with it than to call it “art”.

I wrote today’s story to capture something of that feeling. It’s a story about transformations: death becoming life and loneliness becoming love after long epochs of time. As a lover of science and a person of faith, I’m enamored by the concept of evolution in a philosophical sense. What does it mean to live in a place where chaos produces such beauty? And what better description of patient love do we have than this slow blossoming of life on our dead little rock in space? Or perhaps I’m engaging in some romantic pareidolia to see such patterns to begin with? I don’t know.

Those are huge questions for my humble little blog, and as I’m not a physicist, philosopher, or theologian, I hesitate to venture more than the questions.

What comes to mind when you consider evolution in a philosophical light? Is it chaos, or beauty, or both?

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Medical Microfiction: Multicellularity

The Multicellularity Defense

The papers called Eddie the “Monsoon Killer” because he liked to bathe in the blood of his victims.

Really. He had an extra hot tub installed just for that purpose. At five quarts of blood per person, he racked up quite the headcount.

Eddie spent 10 years in lockup while they tallied the bodies.

Just what he wanted.

Court Day arrives, and in strolls Eddie. He denies none of the evidence but claims innocence anyway. Calls it the Multicellularity Defense: “We’re just made of cells, and cells don’t live long. All my guilty cells are dead. Therefore, you must acquit!”

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Cell Biology
Cells all on the same team. (Photo credit: ex_magician)

You probably know today’s word, multicellularity, but do you ever stop to think how dang strange it is that we’re walking colonies of cells? And that these cells are always dying off, and yet somehow we don’t completely lose our sense of identity when they do?

Most life on Earth gets only one cell to live. For the bacteria, archaea, and protists among us, life begins with one cell and ends when that cell dies. If you’re lucky, you get a chance to divide before that happens, thereby passing on your genes to the next generation.

Multicellular organisms like ourselves get to live longer than that. If one cell dies, it’s not the end of the world. We go on. Most of the cells in our body get replaced on a rolling basis depending on the cell type. Red blood cells kick along for about four months, while skin cells get a few weeks to live. The nerve cells that make up the brain have the longest lifespan, and can last up until your death.

That means it’s only fair to convict Eddie’s brain of the crimes. Don’t punish the poor, innocent epidermis though!

As an added Easter Egg, did you guys catch the reference to the Chewbacca Defense at the end there? You must acquit!

Medical Microfiction: Keratinocytes

The Little Dutch Girl

“We’ll draw straws. Long straws stay. Short fixes the hull.”

“Sounds fair.”

Olga proffered a fistful of sticks to her crewmates. Hal, Zarina, and Ken drew one apiece. There was a sharp intake of breath as they opened their palms.

Olga grimaced. “Guess it’s me. Let’s roll. We’re losing oxygen.” She stepped over the airlock threshold. She scanned the area and gasped in surprise. “Wait. Where are the tools? Where’s my space suit?”

“Sorry, Olga,” said Zarina.

The airlock whooshed shut.

Hal shut his eyes as Olga’s body, distorted by the vacuum of space, plugged the breach in the hull.

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ISS science officer and flight engineer, astro...
When you go outside the airlock, don’t forget your space suit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I were a cell in the human body, I think one of the most miserable work environments would be the epidermis, also known as your skin. Your skin’s your body’s biggest organ, and one of the most important ones. It keeps the bad stuff out and the good stuff in and represents the boundary between the body and the environment.

Given that important role, it’s still a raw deal to be a keratinocyte, the type of cell that makes up 95% of the epidermis. Keratinocytes are born deep in the basal layer (the stratum basale) of the skin. There they spend a short childhood multiplying before they’re shoved upwards toward the surface of the skin. As they rise in rank, they’re cut off from the nourishing blood supply found in the deeper layers. Eventually they die off and are packed full of keratin, which hardens them and makes them waterproof. By the time they reach the surface of your skin, their dead bodies form a tough, waterproof wall that keeps all the living cells in your body protected from the outside world.

Keratinocytes are born to die. It’s a heroic deed, yes, but still a raw deal. Much like being thrown out of the airlock to plug the breach in the hull.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the title and inspiration for this story comes from an American folk tale called The Little Dutch Boy. In this story, a young boy becomes a hero by using his finger to plug a leak in a dike. Of course, the big difference between the boy of this story and keratinocytes is that the boy got to choose his fate!

Link Roundup 7-21-13

English: Leafcutter ant Acromyrmex octospinosu...
Leafcutter ant! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the weekend! Here’s a few interesting links on science, medicine, writing, and more from around the blogosphere:

Someone finally explains the real strength of the Bechdel Test, as applied to movies and books. I’ll be keeping this in mind in the future when I write about characters whose backgrounds fall outside of the privileged arenas in society.

Io9 brings us video of the world’s tiniest protest rally, brought to you courtesy of Phylum Arthropoda. Video embedded for your viewing pleasure:

Speaking of adorable things, don’t miss Dreamwalkeramrita’s whimsical re-imagining of common text abbreviations as fuzzy little superheroes!

A portrait gallery of the elderly reflected in mirrors as their younger selves. I found these pictures haunting and beautiful.

All about vitamins, and why many of them might not be as helpful as you think. In the future we’ll spend a whole week here at Medical Microfiction talking about vitamins, thanks to the suggestion of author and reader CJ Friend.

Podcasts I Liked:

What’s going on in your blog this week? What caught your eye around the interwebs?

Medical Microfiction: Cimex Lectularius

The Locals Know

Whenever I move, I like to visit the local grocery stores to get a feel for the culture. Shoes side-by-side with the produce in Italy. Chocolate genitalia in Belgium. Whole aisles of spaetzle in Germany.

And then my job took me to an isolated logging town in Idaho. The local convenience store stocked an unusually large selection of pesticides and woodcutting gear.

“What’s the deal? Roaches? Wasps?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Bedbug outbreak,” he said. “You’ll want some spray and a chainsaw, just in case.”

He sounded crazy; I laughed. So I was unprepared that night when my bed attacked.

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Fruit and berries in a grocery store, Paris, F...
Fruit and berries in a grocery store in Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My story “Alien” and the conversation it provoked on home and travel has got me feeling nostalgic about the itinerant life. I have a travel ritual where I hit the local grocery store as soon as possible when I go to a different country. It’s fun to see the similarities and the differences between what I normally experience and what my counterparts abroad experience when they sit down for a meal.

 I was in a grocery store when I first learned the meaning of the term “culture shock.” Shortly after my family moved from Italy to Georgia, I visited a Super Wal-Mart for the first time. If you live in an area without these suckers, let me just say they’re huge and they sell almost anything you can imagine, from groceries to furniture to garden supplies. The visit happened just a couple of days after we’d moved. I remember standing in the toothpaste aisle, heart racing and in complete shock because there was a whole aisle devoted to different kinds of toothpaste.

Crest toothpaste Purchased Feb. 2005 in Atlant...

What did it mean? Did these people just stand around all day brushing their teeth nonstop? How was I supposed to decide which type to buy? Toothpaste is toothpaste, and yet each box on the shelf bragged about being better than everything around it. My heart raced, and I realized I was hyperventilating. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and pretend like I was back in Italy, and this was all just a bad dream.

Visiting the local grocery store can be fun or terrifying, but it’s always worth your time.

English: Cimex lectularius the Bed-bug
A bed bug outside of its normal habitat: your bed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cimex Lectularius is the scientific name for those most unwanted of sleeping companions, the bed bugs. Medically, bed bugs cause some mild problems for their human hosts. They can cause allergic reactions with their nasty little bites, anemia from the blood-sucking, and psychological distress because, well, you’ve got bugs crawling all over you at night.

Bedbugs have been making a comeback over the last decade here in the United States because of a combination of factors. Firstly, they’ve developed resistance to many of the insecticides that used to kill them. Other pesticides used historically have been found to be harmful to humans and/or the environment, which further narrows our options. Add to that increased world travel, and like any pest or illness, bed bugs seize the opportunity to colonize new places.

The important thing is to be prepared to deal with local issues when you travel, be they bed bugs or, um, bed bugs. Just pay attention to the grocery stores, and you’ll know what to do.

What are your traveling rituals? Do you like to hit the grocery stores too? Have you ever experienced culture shock?

Medical Microfiction: Coremorphosis

Apt Pupil

“Mommy, the doll in my eye hurts me.” Cora rubbed her tearful eye.

Amanda knelt and examined the little girl. “What do you mean, sweetie? You don’t have a doll in your eye.”

“Yes I do. You have one, too. Everyone does.”

Amanda opened her makeup compact and gazed at her pupils. Her reflection in miniature stared back. “Don’t worry, Cora. It’s just your reflection”

But the child rubbed her eye. “It’s hurting me!”

Amanda checked again. In Cora’s left eye, a dark figure oozed from the pupil. It seized the miniature Amanda and held a knife to her throat.

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English: Kewpie doll.
It’s cute until you get one in your eye. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Coremorphosis is the surgical formation of a second pupil in the eye. The Greek root for “pupil” is core-, which means “doll” or “girl”. The ancient Romans applied this word to the eye because they thought the little reflection you see when you look in another person’s eye resembled a tiny doll.

Incidentally, the name “Cora” comes from the same root.

So this is a story about a natural doll and an artificial one. Cora’s eye contains a double image: the true reflection of her mother, and an unnatural figure whose intentions must surely be bad. I for one don’t trust any reflections in my eye that don’t belong there!

Ever wonder what causes red-eye in your photographs? It’s your pupil’s fault .The pupil of the eye is actually an absence. It is the hole in your iris that allows light to enter, which through an astonishing process gets converted into nervous impulses that your brain translates as sight.

English: Glaring Red Eye
Red Eye, or vampire? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to think the pupil was an actual object that made up your eye. After all, it’s solid black! In reality, its dark appearance results from the fact that all the light entering it has been absorbed or reflected inside the eyeball itself. Red-eye happens when a sudden flash of light bounces off the back of your eyes too quickly to be absorbed. The camera captures the color of your blood coursing through the choroid behind your retina.

There are some conditions that will make your pupil change color. Leukocoria gives the pupil a whitish appearance, sort of like an animal’s eyes in the dark. Leukocoria is usually a symptom that something is malfunctioning in your eyes, so if you notice this symptom, make sure to get it checked by a doctor.

Happy Friday, everyone! What was your best accomplishment this week? What’re you looking forward to this weekend?

Medical Microfiction: Trypanophobia

Cringe-Worthy

In dark alleys and back rooms, in bars and clubs, the kids have invented a new thrill. They’re lining up for miles to experience the rush.

The ritual goes like this. There’s a man with a needle. The silvery point hovers in the air, just over a bulging blue vein. The audience stands at attention, hushed. The needle touches skin. It digs in. The onlookers feel it: a rush of chills, a tingling, bells in the ears and clouded eyes. Knees buckle, breath releases, and they’re out cold.

They’re not looking for a chemical high. They’re seeking their own terror.

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Fear of needles
Fear of needles (Photo credit: david anderson : da-photography)

In the past, I’ve written about using what your body already produces to save lives. There’s always a demand for blood and bone marrow donations, which save lives in a way so straightforward that I feel no embarrassment in using the cliche. Such activities are easy, international, and cost you nothing.

I talk about this stuff a lot because I hope by getting the word out, a few more people might consider giving it a shot. Recently, a friend pointed out a problem with my advocacy: some people refrain from donating blood or joining the marrow registry because they suffer from a paralyzing phobia that renders it impossible.

Trypanophobia, or the fear of needles, is quite widespread in the populace. In the United States, roughly 1 in 10 people suffers from this phobia. Unlike many other phobias, the most common type of trypanophobia induces a physical response that can lead to wooziness and fainting. To put it another way, if you’re afraid of spiders and you see one in your shower, you’ll startle and try to squish it or run away. If you’re afraid of needles, your vasovagal syncope will kick in and you may pass out if you see or even think about needles.

മലയാളം: വെള്ളിലത്തോഴി എന്ന ശലഭം
This was going to be a close-up of a needle, but I decided to be nice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What on earth is “vasovagal syncope”? If you’ve ever jumped out of bed after a hard sleep and found yourself feeling a little dizzy, then you’ve experienced it yourself. Your heart rate fails to provide enough blood to your brain, so you feel weird and woozy until your heart catches up.

People with trypanophobia can experience this reflex just from thinking about needles. So what’s a needle-phobic person to do? Fortunately, there are some ways to deal with it. Doctors can numb the area with different anesthetics before they use the needle. They can also make use of some of the new needle-less drug injection methods, which are very cool indeed. A third option is behavioral therapy, which aims to desensitize you to the stimulus through gradual exposure. Trypanophobics can also take anti-anxiety medications which help prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure.

All this talk of phobias makes me think of horror movies, and how we watch them even though they scare us. Or because they scare us. Thus, today’s story: where teenage trypanophobics deliberately seek out vasovagal syncope just for kicks. It’s no dumber than huffing aerosol from a plastic bag, and probably a good deal safer!

Are you afraid of needles? What tips or tricks do you use to deal with it?

Medical Microfiction: Remission

The Plague Cicadas

They came flying over the sea: horse-sized insects in battle armor. Eyes like red coals and hungry jaws. They chewed through our trees, our homes, our bodies. Anything the touched, they consumed, heedless of our misery.

But we drove them back in the end.

Victory! We have stacked and burned the bodies of the strange invaders. We have buried our dead and made songs for our heroes.

It’s time to put these dark days behind us. Tonight we celebrate victory.

Apart from the rest of us, one old warrior stands at the ocean’s edge, scanning the horizon with doubtful eyes.

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Cicada
Cicada (Photo credit: plounsbury)

You’ve heard the word remission before, probably in association with cancer. Remission means the subsiding or diminishing of a disease. Full remission is distinct from a cure because while the disease is no longer detectable, there’s always a chance it could reoccur. This is true of many types of cancer, and of some types of bowel disease. Still, even with that distinction, in cases of chronic or incurable diseases remission is great news indeed.

Today I’m happy to report that my wonderful friend, who has been battling acute leukemia since November, got news a few days ago that the leukemia’s completely undetectable in her body for the first time since the battle began. Full remission! And the timing couldn’t be better. Today she’s entering the hospital to begin prepping for her bone marrow transplant next week. There is no better time to do a transplant than when the disease has been so thoroughly beaten into the ground.

The cool thing about bone marrow transplants? When successful, they can actually cure leukemia. Not just put it into full remission; cure it. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the bone marrow registry and highly encourage you to consider joining it, or the branch in the country you live in.

I think cicadas make for a good metaphor for remission. Cicadas have a unique life cycle. They spend years and years living underground and only emerge to mate, lay eggs, and die. Then their grubs go underground for up to 17 years before they emerge again. As with any incurable disease, they’re likely to reappear after being completely gone for years and years.

This year marked the return of one cicada brood up and down the East Coast of the United States. They’re remarkable insects, cicadas. Check out this gorgeous video for a real treat. Make it big, and set it to HD for best enjoyment:

Beautiful. Have you ever witnessed a brood of cicadas emerge? I wanted to drive around and look for one this year, but just barely missed the window!

Link Roundup 7-9-13

English: Henry, the world's oldest Tuatara in ...
English: Henry, the world’s oldest Tuatara in captivity at Invercargill, New Zealand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science news and writing-related links from around the blogosphere, and a brief review of my favorite podcasts of the week:

In a huge breakthrough, scientists were able to derive tiny livers from human skin cells. Very awesome.

Whose heart skips a beat for epigenetics? Learn all about this innovative new branch of genetics from the fine folks at Discover Magazine.

The Artificial Selection Project is calling for submissions for the first edition of their new literary magazine. I like these guys and their project, and am polishing a few pieces to submit. If you write and are looking for interesting new markets, check ’em out!

Rochelle Wisthoff-Fields ponders the problem of sequels. It was good brain-fodder for me, as I’m prepping to write a sequel when NaNoWriMo starts up again in November.

Meanwhile, on MissKZebra’s blog, they’re talking about the tricky business of incorporating sexual elements into a story.

A coat made out of human chest hair: the ultimate upcycling project, or just plain gross? I vote gross, but I’d certainly buy one as a gag gift for my more hirsute friends.

And just for fun, Jason tells the traumatizing story of the first time he saw “A Clockwork Orange”. Yes, I’m responsible for the fact he had to watch it twice. Personally, I thought the movie was brilliant. Just as twisted as they say it is, though.

Favorite podcasts I heard this week (I’m almost always behind, so these are “new to me”):

  • Escape Pod #400: “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke. Full-cast production of this amazing golden-age sci-fi classic. The episode blew me away, and epitomizes everything a fiction podcast can be, what with amazing performances and production values. It went nicely with my Kubrick marathon as well; I promptly rented 2001: A Space Odyssey after listening to this episode.
  • Drabblecast #286: “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” by Andy Duncan. A bizarre and appropriate send-up of one of my all-time favorite short story authors. I won’t give away the twist ending, but I’ll give you a hint: think “Southern Gothic”. Don’t miss my Twabble at the end, too!
  • Drabblecast #42: “40 Quarters” by Tom Williams. The life you save may be your own, so compensate those public servants properly, folks.

What’s happening on your blog? What interesting articles have you seen around the blogosphere this week?

Medical Microfiction: Prosopagnosia

Brain Damage You Can Believe In

It’d been over a year since my racist grandma made one of her trademark comments about “those people” bringing down the neighborhood. Indeed, all our family get-togethers had seemed unusually civil lately. Great-Uncle Ernie hadn’t cracked a sammich joke in ages, and my horrible Aunt Louise actually complimented a rabbi yesterday.

Concerned, we took Grandma in for a full workup.

“I’ve been seeing lots of similar cases,” said the neurologist. “They can’t tell a stranger’s face from their own anymore. Damage to the fusiform gyrus in the brain. Turns out radiation from cell phone use isn’t so harmless after all.”

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Perception: Prosopagnosia
Do you see one face, or many faces? (Photo credit: sbpoet)

Remember pareidolia, the human tendency to see faces in pretty much anything? Today’s word, prosopagnosia, is what happens when the portion of the brain responsible for pareidolia goes bad. Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is the inability to tell one face from another, usually because of damage to the ventral fusiform gyrus. A person with this condition will not be able to tell one face from another. Your racist grandma won’t be able to tell “her people” apart from the “wrong sort”. She won’t even be able to recognize herself if she looks in the mirror! Prosopagnosiacs rely on clothing, voices, and other cues in order to recognize friends, family, and acquaintances.

I started composing this story several weeks ago, and in that time I’ve seen this rather obscure medical word pop up everywhere. First, Brad Pitt decides he’s got face blindness. It may very well be the case, but call me skeptical. Prosopagnosia is more than just being bad with faces and names. Honestly, I’m bad with faces and names. Terrible, in fact. I’ve been known to answer the door and cheerfully introduce myself to old friends I haven’t seen in years. But I can still recognize my own face in the mirror. I can tell my husband apart from my brother. People with true prosopagnosia can’t do that. I would want to ask Brad if he routinely mistakes his wife for other women, or has trouble telling his own face apart from his coworkers’ faces in promotional shots of his movies.

Otherwise, he’s just bad with faces. No shame in that, but it’s not face blindness.

A shaken Clark Kent, unconcerned about his sec...
Either everyone in Metropolis has prosopagnosia, or they’re a bunch of morons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In other prosopagnosia-related news, I found this hilarious article speculating whether Superman induces face blindness in the people around him, which would explain why no one seems to see through his terrible Clark Kent disguise.

Finally, living at the intersection of face blindness and microfiction, the award-winning sci-fi author Ken Liu wrote his own 100-word story for the Drabblecast this week entitled “Prosopagnosia”. Go listen to the episode! The story’s unbelievably good, especially for its length, and best of all, it’s medically accurate! With the Brad Pitts of the world muddying up the definitions for the public, I always appreciate it when writers give a little TLC to scientific precision.

As an added bonus, listen for my 100-character story at the end of the episode. It’s under my forum name, Varda, but we’re the same person. Really.

Brad Pitt, if you’re reading this, I’m not the same person as Clark Kent. Sorry for the confusion.

Are you good or terrible with names and faces? Do you know someone or do you personally experience medical prosopagnosia? What’s it like?