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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Winter Solstice

When we were in Peru some years ago, we took the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu – the ‘lost’ city high in the Andes Mountains discovered just 100 years ago this year. The trip alone was truly memorable. The little train’s engine struggled to climb part way up the mountain, stopped and backed up an equally steep grade, stopped and went forward up further and in this way zigzagged its way up to the level that ran through a mountain valley. After a couple of hours of mountain scenery, we got off at a station below the towering cliffs jutting up on all sides of the amazing site. A waiting bus transported us through tortuous hairpin turns and took us up the rest of the way.

The video takes you to the breathtaking site. The most spectacular part of the tour for me was to the sacred flat rock with its hitching post where the Incans performed the ritual of lassoing the sun at the time of winter solstice. After days of prayers and incantations, they believed they made it stop disappearing into the horizon earlier and earlier each day and start it’s return toward longer days of spring and summer.

The axis around which the Earth spins, precesses [wobbles like a top] and for us in the northern hemisphere, it tips away from the sun to its full extent at winter solstice and then takes 4 or 5 days before it starts tipping back. On June 21, it is fully tipped toward the sun, the days are very long and our summer starts . At the South Pole, of course, December 21 is their longest day and thus the beginning of their summer.

I’ve always been surprised at the extent to which ancient civilizations studied the skies. Observatories from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Uxmal on the Yucatan peninsula, to name two special ones I’ve visited that were very advanced. They were able to create calendars to predict the best planting and harvesting times and the dates of ritual ceremonies needed to be precisely known so they could be celebrated correctly.

Without the distractions of modern times and the accumulated knowledge so freely available, people had a special connection with the planet when surrounded with the grandeur of the moving skies full of stars that appeared, disappeared and moved predictably. It gave a sense of wonder that is missing now for many of us living in light polluted cities.

At this special time of year, in whatever way you may observe the holiday in our northern hemisphere, I hope you will rejoice in the knowledge that the days will start getting longer and as the Earth warms, anticipate the rebirth spring brings. Soon, out will come our seed catalogues. Rie

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Guinness stout

Recently my doctor prescribed a glass of Guinness stout before dinner to improve my appetite. It’s nearly black in colour and I love the distinctive taste. It’s an old remedy – I had an aunt many years ago who was told to drink a bottle of stout a day to improve her ability to nurse her new born. Scientists now corroborate that the signage that says ‘Guinness is good for you’ that is to be seen very prevalently all over Ireland especially, is actually true. It does contain healthful vitamins and minerals.

When we were in Ireland some years ago, we visited the old St. James’s Gate Brewery where Arthur Guinness started brewing beer in 1759. During the tour someone asked why the beer appeared so black and the answer of necessity, required a short lesson on how any beer is made. We were told that the cereal that is the basis of most beers is barley or wheat [rice is used sometimes in lighter varieties] and to change the starch in the grains of cereal to sugar, it is soaked in water and allowed to sprout. The sprouted grain is then heated to dry the seedlings and the resulting product is what they call ‘malt’. Water, hops [for flavour] and yeast are added to the malt and the yeast feeds on the sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. The result is beer, the third most popular drink in the world behind water and tea. With that basis we were then told the story about the first batch of the deep ruby red Guinness stout.

It turns out that the men who made the beer were allowed a certain amount of it to drink during their breaks in a day. One day, as the story goes, they were having such a jolly time, they allowed the sprouted barley to heat too long and the malt was roasted to a dark colour. It wasn’t burned and they decided to use it anyway. When the overseer saw the resulting almost black beer, to punish the men he insisted that to they would have that for their break and they would have to drink it until it was all used up. Actually it was really no penalty at all because the workers liked the dark beer so much and thus the start of production of Guinness stout that was perfected and has became renowned throughout many countries in the world.

Those who make their own beer know that when it is racked into bottles, a teaspoon of sugar is added to each one and then the cap put on to seal it. The yeast continues to work on the sugar and produce the carbon dioxide bubbles that give the beer its characteristic taste and ‘fizz’. Instead of using this method of producing effervescence, Guinness developed an altogether unique new method. It was a widget that is filled with nitrogen gas under pressure and sealed into any container of stout.

The "floating widget" found in cans and bottles of Guinness is a hollow plastic sphere, 3 cm [over an inch] in diameter, 7 cm [about 3 inches] in length with the small microscopic hole in the bottom. The video shows how it works to put that special ‘milky head’ on the beer.

It’s taken some serendipity and a long time for Guinness stout to develop but, Oh my, it’s been worth the wait! Best medicine I’ve ever had!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Elephant Safari

In 1996 when we traveled to Nepal, we made arrangements to visit the southern jungle bordering on India where rhinos could be hunted using elephants. As the picture shows, the rhinos must not consider elephants any threat because they pay no attention to them nor to the gaggle of tourists on their backs.

Our first morning there, we are awakened to the sound of elephants returning from the jungle where they had spent the night chained to a tree feeding and sleeping. Though tamed, the chains are routine and necessary to keep them from wandering off.

Each elephant is always accompanied by its mahout, the man who controls it. Mahouts apparently start as boys when they are assigned a young animal. They form a bond with their elephant that often lasts through much of their lives. After breakfast, we were shown the elephant enclosure where they are groomed and trained. The younger elephants being in close contact, learn from the older ones and the video shows that the elephants learn vocal signals as well but usually won’t react to any command unless given by its own mahout.

To go on safari we had to climb up to a high platform built so the elephants could come alongside and we could step onto the ‘howdah’ or the carriage strapped to their back. It was comfortable enough as we moved slowly along the trail being rocked from side to side. We soon reached a clearing where rhinos were grazing. They seemed dwarfed by our huge mounts and we certainly had a good look at them.

.Actually I was more interested in the elephants. They are among the smartest in the animal kingdom with 160 gestures and more than 70 sounds that they use in communication. Many vocalizations are complex and sophisticated and progress has been slow in the study of elephant language. I was even more intrigued when I read that in the wild, male and female elephants live separately and that female groups of up to 20 close family members spend their lives together. The life cycle of females is similar to that of humans in that they live 20 or 30 years after their last child. I am reminded of the piece I wrote about the ‘grandmother effect’ and how the close contact of the older women with the young allows them to pass on their accumulated knowledge. Elephants may be wiser than we realize.

The biggest treat for me on that safari was in the afternoon, watching the elephants playing in the river where they were having a fine time together. It was easy to see they were interacting and you could truly feel their affection for each other. Rie

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pasteur to Penicillin

When I was visiting a science museum in Paris in 1949, I remember being thrilled to come across the very swan neck flask that Pasteur had used in his famous experiment in 1862. He did that experiment to prove that the popular belief in ‘spontaneous generation’ - that life just starting up of its own accord - was not the reason why any food left open to the air ‘went bad’ or began to ferment.

The results of that experiment would be far reaching. One of the main reasons that science has been so successful is that experimental outcomes are openly reported and thus able to be used by other scientists with confidence as the basis for their own work. This post is about a chain of important discoveries affecting all mankind that started with the work done in the 1670’s by Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch scientist famous for making microscopes. He had reported that through them he could see a multitude of very tiny microscopic life forms. This knowledge subsequently convinced Pasteur that there were all sorts of microorganisms, mostly bacteria, viruses and fungi spores that you couldn’t see suspended in the air and that they were drifting down onto food and infected it.

To prove his point, Pasteur did a simple but very famous experiment. He put some nourishing broth in 2 identical long stemmed flasks boiled them both to kill any microorganisms they contained and one he left the top open while with the other, he melted the glass at the top of the stem and pulled it into a long swan neck shaped tube as shown in the picture. It was still open to the air but microorganisms could not fall into the broth and, as Pasteur predicted, it did not spoil as the other one did.

Influenced by Pasteur’s results and writings, Joseph Lister, a surgeon in Scotland, became convinced that the reason open wounds usually became infected was because the harmful microbial life forms from the air were similarly contaminating them. By 1869, he was sterilizing his instruments, cleaning open wounds and covering them with bandages covered with an antiseptic. His results were so dramatic with so many lives saved that he spread the word and medical science was revolutionized through reading about his methods and following his example.

The story of Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin can also be connected to Pasteur’s work. Although it had been suspected for many years that disease could be passed from one person to another by being in close proximity, Pasteur proved that bacteria suspended in air could cause disease. In 1928, Fleming was looking for a substance that would not be harmful to the body but could kill the disease-causing germs a person had breathed in. He was growing a type of Staphylococcus bacteria in covered glass dishes and trying to kill them with different substances. By chance while cleaning up some discarded dishes, he happened on one that had been open to the air and a mold was growing in it. Observant, he noticed that the mold was killing the ‘staph’ germs all around it. Recognizing his ‘find’ as important, he had a colleague identify the mold as a Penicillium type and he called its active ingredient penicillin. His chance discovery opened up the whole field of antibiotics.

When you prepare food be aware, like Pasteur, that you are creating conditions for air born contamination. Cover and refrigerate. Rie