The Bacterial Pump

It is a fairly well-known story how Friedrich Kekule solved the structure of the benzene ring after having a dream of a snake biting its own tale. Also there is the case of Elias Howe, who succeeded in building a workable sewing machine only after dreaming of being menaced by natives wielding spears with holes in the tips. My dreams have yet to provoke any brilliant revelations, but have once or twice included some modestly useful ideas.

Last night I dreamed of a pump to be powered by bacteria. The idea was to confine a large number of swimming bacteria to a box with water-permeable membranes at each end. If all the bacteria could persuaded to swim in the same direction, then the water in the box would be pushed in the opposite direction. In my dream this was to be accomplished by engineering the bacteria to swim oriented to a magnetic field or to seek light.

In the cold light of day this at first seemed like a totally infeasible idea, but now I'm not so sure. I see that some forward-thinking people have measured the force produced by a single bull sperm and found it to be 0.000025 dynes. Elsewhere I find that the average density of sperm (for humans) is 65,000,000 per milliliter. I'm not sure what the density is for bulls but I don't think it can be that much different. If I combine these numbers I get a total force of 1625 dynes per milliliter. And 62 milliliters of bull sperm yield a force of over 1 newton--in other words, enough to accelerate a liter of water at over one meter per second squared.

The flagellum, the so-called "whiplike tail" of the sperm and some types of bacteria, is not really whiplike but more like a rotating corkscrew-shaped propeller. We don't usually think of living things as manifesting wheel-and-axle type structures, but bacteria (and sperm) do. Another waking thought I had was that the base of the flagellum should provide an excellent model of a rotating motor for nanotechnology enthusiasts. Naturally I am not the first to think of this.

Peak Fitness for the Midde-Aged Codger

Try the following thought experiment: ten peopler across the U.S.A., young and old, male and female, wake up one morning with the sudden resolution to get into shape. All start exercising with high enthusiasm; working out several times a week and giving their all each time. During the first week, one pulls a muscle in his shoulder is forced to quit exercising; the second week another develops Achilles tendonitis and again is force to quit; the third week, a third person strains his back; and so on. After ten weeks, we find nine of the ten have developed injuries which forced them to quit exercising, while the tenth, lucky one is in truly awesome physical shape.

Inspired by her transformation, the tenth person thinks, "if I can do it than anyone can" and writes a how-to book based on her experience. Perhaps this explains why, of the score of exercise books I've read over the years, none gives the issue of avoiding and coping with injury the attention it deserves. Perhaps motivation is the first obstacle for many, but once that is surmounted, injury looms as the next, particularly for the middle-aged athlete.

Your capacity for physical development declines with age. Just how much is an open question--certainly not as much as is generally assumed (see for just one example the case of Dr. Jeffry Life).

One the other hand, the middle-aged have one advantage over the young--if nothing else, we have learned that time passes. You remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare from grade school, don't you? That story never made sense to me until at the age of about thirty-five I thought back on various projects I had started with fervor and energy, only to drop out after a week, a month, or in any case before completion.

The big difference between the Fitness for the Middle-Aged Codger exercise program and the others is a modest amount of patience. Give yourself a year. Pick any given measure of fitness--body fat content, distance run, weight lifted. If you can improve it by two percent a week, that adds up to one hundred per cent improvement in a year (actually more, because of compounding effects). Perhaps that one-hundered-per-cent improvement just isn't feasible. In that case, your goal is to reach the peak value for you personally.

Don't want to wait a year? Then go for one of the many twelve week, six week, or other short-term programs out there. Just remember: the fast track to the top is littered with the wreckage of those who ran off the road. The stairs are much safer.

My next post on this subject will detail a technique I call summit running. The goal of this technique is to help you reach your personal peak performance in running speed and aerobic fitness, while minimizing the chance of injury.

The Real Problem with Global Warming

No, not the fact that the Earth will soon be reduced to a baked wasteland and we're all going to die--some scientists say we are approaching a "tipping point" within the next ten years, beyond which self-reinforcing effects of global warming become irreversible. See the news story here or the original article here.

No, I mean the problem that it's so hard to take this seriously. Both in the collective sense--our government has so far managed to avoid taking any action proportionate to the level of the threat--and in the individual sense. Come on, now, do you really believe that the end of the world is less than ten years away?

And that's because the global-warming story conflicts with a basic principle of intuitive logic. You can compare the situation to leaning against a stream radiator which gradually heats up to a dangerous level. If you keep touching the radiator, eventually it will seriously burn you. But well before that happens, you will first feel mild discomfort, and then severe discomfort, and then intolerable pain. In fact it would require considerable force of will to seriously injure yourself in this way (as opposed to accidentally leaning against an already-hot radiator, which is easy to do).

But, although everyone talks now about how bizarre the weather is, for most of us it really isn't that bad. Here in Maryland in late July, high temperatures in the low 80's (Fahrenheit) are forecasted for the next several days--hardly oppressive heat. The weather is like a mildly-warm radiator--it's hard to believe that a serious burn is imminent. Unless you're one of the unlucky few who have been flooded out of their homes, your gut feeling is: yeah, it may be a little warm but I can handle it.

Of course, intuitive logic is sometimes dead wrong.

Too bad we can't have just one summer with average temperatures of, say, 110 degrees F across the U.S. Then everyone would believe.

Practical Joke #1

The set-up for this one is rather elaborate--in fact, you need to wait until you're on your deathbed, with your loved ones surrounding you. Let them go on with the usual stuff for such an occasion: we love you, are you in any pain, we'll always remember you blah, blah, blah... then, when you feel yourself slipping away, lunge at the nearest loved one and grab him or her by the shirt. Cry out, "Avenge me! Avenge me!" Then fall back dead.