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Cheese Ends, 20230102

What better way to start the year than with Cheese Ends?

(Picture from here.)

I’m getting older every year, so we’ll start with a possible approach to human longevity.

Anyone who has worked with culturing cells has noticed that after a number of generations—say 50, or so—the cells get bloated, sick, and generally unhappy. They quit reproducing. They become senescent cells. It’s not entirely clear why this happens or even if, in all cases, it’s a bad thing. Senescent cells have been shown to contribute to the healing of injuries, for example.

But if they—like a dinner guest that has overstayed its welcome—linger too long, they begin to have bad side effects. They produce noxious chemicals and tend to cause a continuing and deleterious immune response. They can also turn cancerous. In some aging tissues the number of senescent cells can approach a third.

So: if senescent cells are bad, getting rid of them would be good, right?

This was the approach in an experiment at the Mayo Clinic. In the experiment, they genetically engineered mice such that when cells became senescent, they became susceptible to their target drugs. Then, they raised the mice to middle age and began injecting them regularly. The mice lived longer and better. They had less issues with heart, kidney, and other organs. They were still susceptible to cancer.

There are a lot of potential issues. For one, it’s hard to genetically engineer human beings so a senolytic drug needs to be developed. One that targets senescent cells. For another, these things would have to be done delicately.

A long time ago I was at a presentation by a researcher that was chasing a general antiviral drug. His method was to link a virus recognition mechanism to a signal to the cell to self-destruct—apoptosis. The plan was to kill the virally infected cells.

(I went looking for a publication for this and couldn’t find it so I’m reciting the presentation from memory.)

He infected mice with a singularly fatal virus and administered the drug at intervals—one population of mice at one day infection, the next at three, etc. The mice recovered well enough until towards the end of the experiment, when the mice were close to death, the mice died more quickly with the drug than with the disease. What was happening was the number of cells that died from the drug were so great, the impact of all of those dead cells overwhelmed the animals’ ability to recover and they died of a kind of shock.

This could be a problem in treating an older population where organs can have a substantial population of senescent cells in their organs. It’s not good to kill Granny with the thing that is intended to prolong her life. Conclusion: hopeful.

Climate change is happening and its effects are, as has always been predicted, showing in the intensification of weather events. No surprise there. Here is an article that reviews 2022. I’m not going to talk about it. I find perfectly avoidable catastrophes depressing.

As we go forward studying the neurological behavior of animals, we keep getting thrown by them showing themselves to be more sophisticated and smarter than we expect. This happened first with primates when we realized that other primates had way more cognitive horsepower than we realized. Then, it happened with birds. Now, it’s happening with insects.

It turns out bees seem to play.

In the course of some experiments, some researchers in London were training bees to roll wooden balls in order to gain a reward. This, in and of itself, shows that an insect with the brain of 0.5 mm is smart enough to connect pointless activity and reward. During the course of the work, they noticed some bees that were not trained to a reward rolled the balls, too. They wondered if this could be play behavior.

They set up the experiment so the bees had plenty of food and left the wooden balls around. Then, they measured how often they interacted with the balls and whether or not there were possible associated rewards unconsidered by the scientists—i.e., there could be a reward the bees were getting of which the scientists were unaware.

The bees “played” within the parameters of the experiment. By this, the bees interacted with the wooden balls without any obvious reward or association with something the bees might consider inviting like a flower or something.

Did they play? By this, did they indulge in spontaneous activity that had no obvious reward or incentive and then return to the same activity? Well, yes.

Go figure.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s a startup that allows you to buy your way into geoengineering.

I’m not going to mention the company since I don’t want to promote them—you can find them if you want. Instead, I’m going to call them Idiot Engineering for my own demented purposes.

Idiot Engineering is proposing—and may have begun—to inject sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere.

SO2 reflects back a certain amount of the sunlight received by the earth. Reduce the sunlight, reduce the warming, so the thinking goes.

This does work in the broadest possible sense. We’ve observed this when a given volcano erupts and sends gigatons of SO2 into the atmosphere. I’m looking at you, Mount Pinatubo.

Human geoengineering has a lot of pitfalls. SO2 + H2O yields sulfuric acid. We just managed to reduce acid rain so that’s not a great idea. It’s temporary because the sulfuric acid rains out. And it avoids correcting the cause of the problem. Even if it provided a viable solution—which is highly unlikely—we’d have to keep increasing the amount because we keep introducing more and more CO2. Remember, even if we stayed at the current level of CO2 emissions, we still haven’t reached CO2 equilibrium.

But where there’s one idiot with an idea, there’s always a venture capitalist right behind. Idiot Engineering has attracted money. They claim to have launched their first SO2 clouds and substantially reduced global warming.

I doubt it. But I’m still keeping my houseplants indoors.

Finally, to end on a good note, J. Robert Oppenheimer has been exonerated from the charges that were brought against him back in the fifties.

Oppenheimer was a very good physicist long before he was tapped to head the Los Alamos portion of the Manhattan Project. He was one of the first to predict quantum tunneling, something that enables fusion on the sun. His contributions before the Manhattan Project might ultimately have led to a Nobel Prize had he lived longer and didn’t fall under the anti-communist shadow of the fifties. His associated with Nobel winning work is quite prominent. For example, he predicted the existence of the positron in 1930 and six years later, Carl David Anderson discovered it. Anderson won the Nobel Prize.

Oppenheimer supported what would now be called progressive reforms. Since many of these reforms were supported by the Communist Party, he was guilty by association.

What Oppenheimer excelled in was scientific organization. After the Manhattan Project, he became director of the Institute for Advanced Study and later, chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. At the IAS, he was involved in the cat-herding of such as Einstein, von Neuman and Gödel.

Those communist sympathies and associations came back to haunt him in 1949 when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1953, Oppenheimer was accused of being an agent of the Soviet Union. Subsequent investigations did not show any such direct connection but in the heat of the times, actions that today might seem innocent here painted with dark overtones. “Left wing”, in 1953, was synonymous with communist—a taint that seems to persist to this day. He lost his security clearance and that pretty much ended his government career.

He did continue to work, write, and lecture on the implications of nuclear war, nuclear weapons, and world policy. In 1963, John Kennedy awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award, presented to him by Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination. This was meant to be a symbol of political rehabilitation, though it seems to me, more a rehabilitation of authority over Oppenheimer rather than of Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer died in 1967.

Fast forward nearly seventy years.

In December, US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm restored Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and stated that the revocation had violated the AEC’s own regulations, saying:

“As a successor agency to the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy has been entrusted with the responsibility to correct the historical record and honor Dr. Oppenheimer’s profound contributions to our national defense and the scientific enterprise at large. Today, I am pleased to announce the Department of Energy has vacated the Atomic Energy Commission’s 1954 decision In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

So, only a little over a week late, Happy Christmas to All and to All a Good Night.



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