Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Death of a Spaceman

Neil Armstrong died today from complications resulting from an operation to open up some blocked coronary arteries. He was 82 years old. Armstrong is arguably the best known member of the Apollo 11 team and was the first man to walk on the moon, on a mission that had only a 50% probability of success.

Armstrong was a determinedly private man who disliked the celebrity status that was thrust upon him after returning to Earth. He refused to sign autographs and declined interviews, with one notable exception being an interview he gave in May, 2012, to the chief executive of the Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia. Reportedly he broke his silence due to his fondness for the accountancy profession, as his father had been an auditor.

The full legacy of Armstrong's achievement can never be known, but it stands among the discovery of fire and the invention of the printing press as one of civilization's finest moments. His famous speech (often misinterpreted as " small step for man" rather than "for a man" due to a glitch in the original broadcast) has exemplified the potential for a single individual to change the course of history. The bold spirit of optimism and discovery that Armstrong and Apollo 11 came to represent is sorely missed.

One hopes we can bring it back.

Would you like to know more?
-Read his most recent interview
-Read this statement from NASA administrator Charles Bolden

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Latest Dance Craze is...Death!

The next time you get that spontaneous urge to tap your feet and bust out some moves...beware. It could be a sign that you're not well. In fact, it might mean that you're stricken by an illness that once swept through medieval Europe.

I speak, of course, of the Dancing Plague.

In July of 1518, in the city of Strasbourg, France, a woman stepped out of her home and walked through an alley. Her name was Frau Troffea, and she was patient zero. She began a frantic dance in the middle of the street and continued to dance into the night. Five days later, Troffea was delirious from exhaustion, but still dancing. Soon the crowds of onlookers were compelled to join in the dance, and they too were unable to stop. More and more people were absorbed into the vortex of stomping feet and flailing arms. By August, four hundred people were dancing in the streets of Strasbourg, and they were dropping like proverbial flies thanks to heart attacks, strokes, and dehydration. 

The authorities were bewildered, and issued an order for halls to be opened and musicians to play, in hopes that the dance would subside if properly facilitated. Their plan failed, and in the end the dancers were forcibly rounded up and deported to a shrine in hopes that the power of prayer could cure them. It took another month before the Plague started to clear up. Those who survived could offer no insight into what prompted their non-stop boogie.

Remarkably, this incident is only one of ten accounts of infectious dance-a-thons. It's the best documented, but there are records of other outbreaks going as far back as the 1300's. This was not some apocryphal medieval folktale, like the Flying Saint of Cupertino. This was the real deal. So, the question that immediately springs to mind is: why did these ordinary people start dancing themselves to death?

Scientists have found no conclusive origin for the Plague but various theories have been forth. One commonly held notion is that the people of Strasbourg had eaten wheat contaminated by Ergot mold, which produces spectacularly unpleasant hallucinations and convulsions. This idea has a major problem, however, as all accounts very clearly describe rhythmic dancing and not the violent spasms associated with Ergot. 

The other possible answer is mass hysteria. Medieval France was a rough place to live, and perhaps after a lifetime of storms, famines, and genuine diseases, these superstitious people just snapped. There are other noted examples of contagious, compulsive behavior, so perhaps the Dancing Plague was just one big freak-out.

As this mysterious ailment still has no known cure, I think that we ought to prepare for worse in case there's a modern outbreak. I suggest rigorous regulation of all extended club mixes of pop songs and a ban on stylish discotheques. No one wants a public health emergency, even if it means destroying dubstep.

Would you like to know more?