Touch Wood

There is an oasis of brilliance and calm in New York City, which is not widely known and is the result of the genius and vision of John D. Rockefeller, who leveraged his vast fortune then to help his fellow man in many ways which he could imagine but would never really see.

He loved land and acquired a lot of it in many places including New York City, Westchester County, Mt. Desert Maine, and Wyoming.

Perhaps one of the smallest parcels of his land was on the East River in the east sixties of Manhattan. He gave that land in 1901, and a healthy endowment with it, to what is known today as Rockefeller University [RU].

To say that something is unique is risky because by definition there can only be one. RU is truly unique.

It is both a hospital that does not charge its patients, because they contribute themselves clinically to do research, and an amazing research academy comprised of 76 laboratories where scientists are addressing most of the serious health threats in modern society.

If counting Nobel prizes is a reasonable metric for gauging the quality and importance of their work, there is no other institution of their size anywhere in the world that comes close.

In the 100 plus years they have been at work they have opened more doors in the minds of scientists all over the world to the avenues that lead to dealing with the weaknesses and diseases in the human body and mind.

In recent times they have been using the term “translational” medicine to highlight their focus on connecting or translating the science in their research into clinical applications that can help extend and improve human life with respect primarily to cancers, arterial and neurodegenerative diseases.

The current path of the overall cost of that broad collection of human afflictions in terms of general care, as well as medical care, by 2050 would totally bankrupt our modern society, if those types of diseases are not curtailed.

For that reason alone, simply taking for granted the benefits to humans of reducing suffering, it is an economic and financial imperative that RU and all other scientists succeed in their collective efforts and goals.

The head of RU is Marc Tessier-Lavigne [MTL]. His name suggests that he is French. He was born a French Canadian. He has lived and worked most of his relatively young life in the US. He has been and is both a researcher, general manager [was CEO of Genentech] and an inspiring leader of a broad swath of scientists of many stripes.

He speaks “English” in the sense that everything he says can be completely understood by all audiences including lay people. And he can do the same in French and some German.

He brings to mind the British actor Emlen Williams whose specialty was Dickens. Williams could sit on a stool in an empty black stage with a spotlight on him ‘reading/speaking from memory’ [no paper in hand] some great Dickens pieces. People left the theatre saying “that was the most vivid technicolor film I ever saw.” Indeed the human mind alone can beat Hollywood producers every time!

MTL has Williams gift of bringing alive all the issues and promises of modern sciences to improving and extending human life.

He is also charmingly modest and down to earth. In talking about hoped for promises of some therapies, he taps the arm of his chair and says “touch wood.”

He asserts that, because though there is no science behind the properties of wood in their work, there is a lot of chance and luck.

Let’s all touch wood and hope that he stays well and at the helm of RU until 2050 or the path of those diseases reverses — whichever occurs first.

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Time

Time seems to be a simple thing. And, in one sense, it is.

In many other ways, it is immensely complicated. A lot of those complications come about because of individual perceptions, which are without limit.

Have you ever had a sense that your watch seems to be running slowly while your partner says his/her watch seems to be running too fast.

Perceptions of time are indeed mysterious and very difficult to understand and explain. If you are waiting impatiently, time seems to pass very slowly? If you are distracted as time passes, time seems to fly by?

How often have you returned from a five time zone trip to discover the first afternoon back that time seems to be passing very, VERY slowly — as you try to stay awake until bedtime? Have you ever watched a running race start, and then hear the starting gun shot moments later? Clearly the speed of sound is different from the speed of light? Why?

Some genius a long time ago — long before telescopes, etc. — figured out that the earth itself rotates daily and also rotates around the sun in about 52 weeks. That logically leads to 24, 60-minute hours for the daily rotation, which in turn means seven 24 hour days a week.

From there, we have today’s basic time and distance system. It is not hard to see that while the physical movements remain the same, they might have been represented by comparable but different numbers.

Then Einstein figured out that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. (If I could explain how he reached that number, I probably would be doing something more worthwhile than simply writing this message!)

That fact by itself leads minds into a wonderland when they hear about distances like “light years,” each of which translates into 5,878,499,810,000 miles — which is a number human minds have not yet evolved fully enough to grasp.

So when one hears about stars that are 1,000,000 light years away, while it may not take your breath away, it does blur a mind into meaningless nothingness.

A question comes to mind.

Why did someone/thing create a universe so big that, using our system of time and distance that it is basically impossible for intelligent, exploring inclined beings, like humans, to even imagine ever “setting foot” on planets around a distant star?

There are a lot of possible answers.

Few serious people ever imagined that intelligent beings would be so stupid as to want to leave our comfortable Earth.

Then Jared Diamond started raising interesting and serious questions in his book,Collapse, about how societies’ chose to fail or succeed, which now puts in question the inevitably of human survivability.

Perhaps someone imagined that intelligent beings would/should be satisfied with simply sending cameras out and getting pictures back?

But perhaps somewhere out there — maybe in black holes? — there may be other dimensions which might change our concepts of time and distance, so that “we” may be beamed out and back from a distant planet, near a very distant star, in a time measured in own ‘local’ time that normal humans can handle.

We need to open our minds to new possibilities about the timeless aspects of time.

If you have any interest in a great deal more authoritative information about this subject, I refer you to The Scientific American, Volume 23, No.4, Autumn 2014.