Tuesday, December 29, 2015

having new things to think about

Here’s one of those thoughts that I hadn’t had. Sure, I’d heard of phantom limb pain, wherein an amputated arm seems to the amputee still to be there, at least insofar as it hurts. It follows that, if a man has had his penis amputated, then he would not be immune from the pains of other amputees. 

[There are] cases of men whose penile cancer forced them to have their genitals removed. In one study, 60 percent of these men experienced feelings of pain where their genitals used to be, similar to those who have lost a limb. In elective male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, however, where the genitals are removed and refashioned into a vagina and clitoris, there have been no reported cases of ‘phantom penis’ syndrome.

The brain houses a version of the body onto which it maps signals received from the body. If expected signals are missing, the brain can read the absence as a problem and problems are often described as pain. A recent, successful treatment for phantom hand pain involves tricking the brain with mirrors. Show the amputee the existing hand mirrored, making it seem as though the missing hand was as normal as the existing hand and the brain accepts the mirror hand as real, at least long enough to figure out that there isn’t a problem, and the missing signals are dismissed as a non-issue. The pain goes away.

My admittedly incomplete consideration of sex reassignment surgery had not included thoughts of phantom pain from the missing penis. Perhaps the MTF’s brain somehow never mapped the penis as penis anyway? Perhaps the new clitoris and vagina send signals to the brain that are similar enough to the old penis signals that the brain can accept the new arrangement without confusion? Perhaps no MTF wants to admit to phantom penis pain?   

Well, there you are. I have now thought about phantom penis pain in the context of sex reassignment surgery. Which I hadn’t before. 

source: Becoming Nicole: the transformation of an American family by Amy Ellis Nutt

2015. Random House, NY

Saturday, December 26, 2015

another scary scenario

Back in 1859 this happens:
Ships at sea are reporting tremendous blood red ‘auroras,’ shifting curtains of light in the night sky. Compasses are going wild. Telegraph operators are being electrocuted at their own equipment. …
On September 1st, Richard Carrington is observing the Sun from his observatory in Redhill, south of London, when he sees a bright explosion above a group of sunspots at the center of the Sun. Simultaneously, at Kew in London, the needle of a magnetometer goes off the scale. Learning of the coincidence, Carrington concludes a storm has erupted on the Sun … 
The solar ‘flare’ of 1859 was the biggest ever recorded. If it occurred today, says Stuart Clark in The Sun Kings, electrical currents would be induced in power lines and electricity generating stations sufficient to melt them. Satellites, computers, and communications networks would be destroyed. We would be returned to the steam age.

Huh. Has anybody used this sort of flare as a nightmare movie scenario? And what are we doing to protect ourselves? 

NASA sounds pretty sanguine:
[S]cientists at NASA and NOAA give warnings to electric companies, spacecraft operators and airline pilots before a CME [coronal mass ejection] comes to Earth so that these groups can take proper precautions.

OK then.

source: Solar System: a visual exploration of the planets, moons, and other heavenly bodies that orbit our sun by Marcus Chown

Friday, December 25, 2015

Trying to figure out falling

You are on Deimos [one of the small moons of Mars], space suited and bored. You decide to entertain yourself by seeing how far you can long jump. … Back on Earth you can jump a meter vertically. But here on Deimos, a moon with gravity a mere thousandth as strong, you can go 1,000 times higher. [With a running start] you fly so far that the surface of Deimos curves away below you as fast as you fall back toward it. Now you are falling for ever, in a circle. … You have jumped into orbit.

You are falling toward the moon below. You know it’s below because you are falling toward it. But you never fall all the way to it. You never fall all the way to it because it is “curv[ing] away … as fast as you fall.”

I’ve tried to make sense before of the idea that one can fall but never land on anything. It seems to me odd to use the word “fall” if one can’t land. Isn’t “fall” relative? I mean, if you pushed a toy car and it started to go down a slope, the gravity of planet drawing it forward, you wouldn’t say it was “falling.” You’d say it was traveling. Of course, if the slope became precipitous the toy car would certainly began to fall, probably tumbling. Is that it? The lack of control? The absence of impetus? You are drawn toward something beyond your control. You call that falling. 

Author Marcus Chown imagines not only jumping into orbit from the surface of Deimos, but being able to jump all the way beyond Deimos’ gravitation influence and on down to Mars. Given a good enough space suit and parachute (and opportunity) and somebody would do it. 

source: Solar System: a visual exploration of the planets, moons, and other heavenly bodies that orbit our sun by Marcus Chown