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Category Archive: Science

Mar 31

From my archived columns: “Baseball—it’s a game; it’s not Quantum physics, or is it?”

“Baseball? It’s just a game—as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, a business, and sometimes even a religion.” –Ernie Harwell, The Game for All America, 1955.

There is something certain and steady about the game of baseball. It’s not Quantum physics, or is it?

Poet and author Sharon Olds wrote in “This Sporting Life” in 1987, “Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up”.

I know what she means. Baseball helps us forget our troubles, but why is that?

Maybe it is the reassurance of the stats that make us love it so much, and as we know, diehard fans love baseball stats, good or bad.

Stats are a sure thing. We can rely on them.

Baseball, according to baseball owner and mastermind Bill Veeck, is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world, and yes, indeed, it could be the stats.

Veeck explains, “If you get three strikes, think about it, even the best lawyer in the world can’t get you off.”

Or when the numbers in your own life are not adding up so well, we would do well to remember the old adage, “Things could be worse. What if your errors were counted and published every day like those of a baseball player.”

Now, that puts life in perspective.

There is an opposite to bad baseball stats, however, as Ted Williams once quipped, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

I like those odds.

In 1970, Mickey Mantle said this about baseball stats: “During my 18 years I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,800 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.”

And Norm Cash, legendary Detroit Tiger power hitter and first baseman after his 1,081st strikeout, noted the same thing happened to him: “Pro-rated at 500 at-bats a year, that means that for two years out of the fourteen I played, I never even touched the ball.”

Perhaps it is, in fact, the rhythm of baseball. The repetition, steadiness and the absolute sureness it provides during the summer months that make us love it so much.

After all, it is our national summer pastime, and we watch game after game after game, never tiring of it.

Baseball is always there, and so are its stats.

I am wondering. Is baseball indeed a mystery, something that we cannot comprehend, unlike the stat sheet in front of us?

Even though stats are the lifeblood of baseball, could baseball really be more likely about relativity, or molecular attraction, or theory or timing?

Whatever baseball is, it has a lot to do with the fundamental nature of the universe, the grand scheme of things; or if you will, the idea that things are much different than the world we see.

“More than any other American sport, baseball creates the magnetic, addictive illusion that it can almost be understood,” –Thomas Boswell, Inside Sports.

Quantum physics?

Jan 05

Playing word game online saves a life across the world

“Risk-taking, trust, and serendipity are key ingredients of joy. Without risk, nothing new ever happens. Without trust, fear creeps in. Without serendipity, there are no surprises.”
Rita Golden Gelman, children’s author

I guess I could try to claim a little credit for introducing my friend Beth Legler of Blue Springs to the online game, Words With Friends, but it would be insignificant compared to what was to follow.

Little did I know that through her connection with this game Beth would ultimately become a key player in saving a man’s life in Queensland, Australia.

Neither did she.

Here is what happened. Soon after I talked Beth into playing Words With Friends, a wildly popular online scrabble-like game, I quit. I was addicted and slightly bummed that I could not beat my son and his law-school buddies.

Soon after I bailed, Beth became addicted, as well. For the longest time, Beth said she was too busy with work to play, but once she started she could not stop.

In a gesture of love and respect to her late mother, Beth created a username to honor her.

At about the same time in Queensland, Australia, Georgina Fletcher downloaded the new “hot” app “Words With Friends”. Georgina who prefers the nickname “Georgie” set up a game and was ready to begin. The rules state that one must choose from existing friends or choose a random opponent.

Georgie says she chose the random opponent option because she wanted “to chill out” at the time and simply play a game but not chat with opponents. The thought of conversing with strangers did not sit right with her, she recalls, so she preferred not to chat.

Here is where risk-taking, trust and serendipity enter our story.

Georgie’s first opponent, as it turns out, was Beth Legler of Blue Springs, an R.N. in the Blue Springs School District. She liked Beth’s online username. It intrigued her.

Georgie says that since they did not exchange personal information as they played the game, she guessed that her opponent was female because of her username. They played quite a few games, and eventually Beth sent a message saying simply, “Good Game.”

Hesitating to send back a message, Georgie, out of courtesy, eventually sent back “Thanks.”

From then on their chats would consist of one or two words. During the Christmas season of 2010, Georgie sent a message to her unknown opponent saying “Merry Christmas from Queensland, Australia.”

Beth sent a message back saying Merry Christmas from Missouri, USA.

Georgie says, “It wasn’t long after that you couldn’t shut the pair of us up, spending equal amounts of time chatting and playing.”

She continues, “We talked about our jobs, countries, children, husbands, parents, pets and eventually swapping photos of themselves and families, and Beth’s new puppy!”

Fast forward to September of 2011 when Beth began to worry about her friend Georgie. She had not heard from her, nor had they played in about four days.

Beth reached out through an email asking if everything was okay, hoping that the 16-hour time difference between their two worlds was the reason for Georgie’s online absence.

Not too long after, Georgie sent a message explaining that her husband Simon had not been feeling well for sometime. She wrote that recently after taking their dogs for a long walk, he complained of a burning pain in the back of his throat. Simon believed he was breathing in cold air and that was the problem, but Georgie was worried.

Georgia was perplexed as well, “I thought what is he talking about? We live in a tropical climate and the air outside was warm and humid, certainly not cold.”

As many men often shrug off illness, Georgie commented, he continued denying anything was wrong. Day after day, the pain in his throat and heartburn became more regular. Georgie suggested he see a doctor, but he brushed off the idea saying he saw one last month and had a great checkup. No cholesterol problems and perfect blood pressure. Simon said all he needed was an antacid.

Georgie began referring to her husband Simon as “Mr. Self-Diagnosis”, and believed he was avoiding the truth primarily out of denial and fear.

Eventually, Georgie began to share Simon’s dilemma with Beth online including an incident in which he could not walk to the mailbox without difficulty.

Immediately concerned, Beth shared this information with her husband Larry Legler, M.D. and longtime family physician in Independence.

Larry wanted Simon to take an aspirin and see a doctor immediately about possible angina.

Beth wrote Georgie: “Larry thinks Simon is in a whole lot of trouble, get him to a hospital ASAP, and Georgie, Larry believes Simon will need a cardiac catherization procedure right away.”

Georgie explains what happened after that: “We presented at the hospital and saw a heart specialist. I told the specialist what Larry had said and why. The specialist was quite bemused by a diagnosis given by someone from the other side of the planet and a Words With Friends pal, just to make it all the more bizarre.”

The doctor actually concurred, however, remarking, “I agree with your friend Larry and will order a test where a dye will be put through Simon’s veins and then a scan.”

Later that afternoon, they received a call from the cardiac surgeon saying cath surgery would be first thing in the morning and that Simon had a 99 percent blockage of the left ventricle.

After the surgery, Georgie said the surgeon told her that Simon would have been dead by afternoon if someone had not intervened. He is the luckiest man in the hospital today, the doctor added.

Georgie emailed Beth and Larry immediately saying how impressed they were with Larry’s diagnosis, made with little information. She wrote: “ We are forever grateful to him. And to you Beth, they say that nurses are God’s angels, well you are an angel to us!”

Moral to the story: Simon says never, never self diagnose, and Georgie says, “Please chat with your random opponents on Words With Friends or whatever game you choose. I got over my fear of opening up, took a risk and told the truth, and it saved my husband’s life.”

Epilogue: The two women hope to meet one day in person but until then have visited on Skype.

Georgie dumped Beth from Words With Friends because she was getting bored with the game. Beth says it was more likely that Georgie was tired of Beth beating her.

Now, the two women play Hanging With Friends (Hangman online) every chance they get. Beth says Georgie prefers this because she beats Beth mercilessly at this game. Apparently, this highly addictive and fierce pastime between these two is not for the faint of heart.

I’m staying offline. They scare me.

Sep 15

Primer on a Full Moon

“Summer ends, and autumn comes, and he would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night” – Hal Borland

A full moon every night might be too much, but once a month is mesmerizing.

Did you see the Full Harvest Moon in all its radiance this week?

If you did not get to step outside and stare in amazement, you will have more chances when the full moon shines again on October 12th, November 10th and December 10th.

When the moon is full, the sky glows brighter and illuminates the ground better than a streetlight making lawns look almost snow-covered. I love observing full moons outside in our front yard or driving at night watching the giant red, orange or yellow ball, whatever color it may be that month. Magically, the moon rises slowly above the horizon in the east just as the sun disappears in the western sky.

Surreal, beautiful, numinous, mystical.

Ned Potter of abcnews.go.com agrees with me, to a point:
“We’re coming up on the autumnal equinox on Sept. 23, when summer turns to fall and the temperature turns, too. At this time of year, night and day are the same length, which is why the sun and moon, just opposite each other in the sky, make for a nice show. There’s no real magic to all this, just the bodies of the solar system doing what they do as they follow the rules of orbital mechanics. But there is a pleasant effect on us earthlings, if we pause to enjoy the combination.”

Not everyone likes the full moon or its effects, however.

Lore and legend hold the belief that people become crazy during a full moon and that it brings out the worst in us, sometimes called ‘The Lunar Effect’ or ‘The Transylvania Effect’.

An article title “Moonstruck” in Dr. Eric Chudler’s “Neuroscience for Kids” online magazine explains the moon’s influence on behavior.

Note: I am not embarrassed at all to say that I enjoy reading science articles written for children because they make science easy and fun. If you are a science-challenged adult like me, try it sometime. I guarantee you will be entertained and informed.

But back to the crazy full moon and its weird effects on behavior.

The “Moonstruck” article explains further: “The belief that the full moon causes mental disorders and strange behavior was widespread throughout Europe in the middle ages. Even the word ‘lunacy’ meaning ‘insanity’ comes from the Latin word for moon. You may hear people say, ‘Just ask an emergency room nurse or a police phone operator. They will tell you that they are busier on nights when there is a full moon.’”

The list is long about aggressive or ‘crazy’ behaviors the moon can cause, but in articles in Psychology Today and Live Science, data shows no significant relationship, more frequency or difference in occurrences of violence, crime and aggression.

Lore and legend are powerful though with many folks who remain convinced that the following behaviors absolutely do occur during a full moon:

Sleepwalking, increased aggression by athletes, crisis calls, more emergency room admissions, mental health disturbances, sleep deprivation, pet injuries, homicides, criminal offenses, deviant behaviors, farm animals changing their sleep habits, jungle animals becoming nocturnal, bad surgery outcomes and nursing home patients not sleeping or turning aggressive.

We all have similar stories to tell, and I imagine if you are like me, we will be slow to convince, despite the scientific data to the contrary.

For example, I went to the nursing home to visit my mother during the recent full moon. The nurses met me at the door saying the full moon was making everyone crazy in there last night.

The first person I saw was a 94-year-old resident; let’s call him Sam, yelling out loudly, “I’m dead. I’m dead, I’m dead!”

“Hi Sam, I said, “Are you OK?”

“No, I’m not OK”, he replied. “I’m dead.”

“Oh, no you’re not dead, Sam.” I said.

He never missed a beat saying, “Well, if I’m not, then I’m gonna be.”

He got me, leaving me to wonder who was the crazy one.

Perhaps, the scientists are right about the moon, or perhaps as Lord Byron once wrote, “The devil could be in the moon for the mischief of it all.”

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