Checking in with Europe


The first word is seldom the last word. Some things, however, are worth noticing at first mention, no matter how they turn out. With that in mind we’re going to venture far from my beach chair and take a look at a couple of scientific stories out of Europe. Since you’re joining the trip, please bring a large order of French fries so we can demonstrate our appreciation of international cuisine.

I’ll play the old bore today and introduce the first story discursively. So, like any bore, I’ll start at the beginning instead of at the end: The first story I want to mention reminds me of a time in high school when driver’s education met biology. An alumnus had been wheelchair-bound after a car accident. He gave a presentation each semester about it: He had taken a turn too fast in a convertible, didn’t have a seat belt on, and got ejected from the car. The lecture persuaded us to become safety-conscious drivers. After the driver’s education presentation somebody in biology class asked our teacher why doctors couldn’t undo the damage that confined this guy to a wheelchair.

The teacher answered that nerves, or at least the ones that mattered here, once severed, can’t be mended. It seemed like an obvious priority for scientific research, but high school biology students aren’t consulted about such things.

As the decades went by, though society was ever-more marinated in self-reverential gloating about the triumphs of “modern technology,” I’d sometimes wonder if this problem had any hope of a solution.

Well, maybe it does. An Oct. 21 BBC headline says that a paralyzed man “walks again after a cell transplant.”

The patient had been paralyzed from a knife attack in 2010.

“The treatment,” says the story, “a world first, was carried out by surgeons in Poland in collaboration with scientists in London.” The treatment involved harvesting cells from inside the patient’s nose and grafting them into the damaged portion of his spine.

The BBC quoted one of the London scientists, Professor Geoff Raisman, describing the accomplishment as “more impressive than man walking on the moon.”

I’d say it’s off-the-scale impressive if this leads to a practical and common treatment. But we’re just dealing with the first words here, so we’ll just wait and see how it works out.

As I move on to the next story from Europe, I’ll note that it’s a little bit nerdy. It’s also very exotic. And here’s something else it is: completely over my head. So you’re just getting my man-on-the-beach notions of what I think is going on.

About a week ago, it was reported that “dark matter,” that utterly mysterious substance that comprises most of the mass of the universe, and which also comprises one of the greatest capers in science, may have left some identifiable footprints and, hence, a trail of evidence that might finally lead somewhere.

The possible footprints came via x-ray emissions that were recorded by a European Space Agency satellite. In the U.K., some University of Leicester scientists reviewed that data. They think the sun is emitting little particles called “axions,” which bounce off the Earth’s magnetic field like billiard balls and throw off x-rays in the process. As it turns out, the big notion here is that axions have been on the list of suspects for dark matter, and this news apparently puts some circumstantial evidence behind the idea.

This story was covered by an article on the (U.K.) Guardian’s website on Oct. 16 (“Dark matter may have been detected—streaming from the sun’s core”).

Of course, this is yet another case where the first words aren’t the last words. It may be years, if not decades, before this particular trail hits pay dirt or goes cold.

Nobody is wishy-washy about dark matter. Some people don’t care at all. OK, most people don’t care at all, and I doubt it’s the biggest topic of conversation on Saipan. Fair enough. By contrast, some other people are utterly transfixed by the fact that fully 96 percent of the universe is said to be made up of totally unknown types of matter and energy.

Anyway, those are two big stories that just caught the attention of the entire world. I hope these advances on the medical front and the physics front are gateways to greater things. They seem to hold that promise, which is why they are so exciting.

Thus concludes our little jaunt from the west Pacific to the east Atlantic. I’m out of space. You’re out of fries. So this is where we say “goodbye.”

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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