86 Pieces of Lego

My basement likely has thousands of Lego pieces collecting dust. Three grown children, two of them boys – I couldn’t guess how many Lego sets emerged from Christmas or birthday wrappers. I should have kept track – how much did we buy, vacuum up or step on with tender bare feet. Lego management was tricky – basic sets for little kids gave way to elaborate engineering feats, sets requiring itsy bitsy pieces of specialized madness. Agonizing objectives stopped dead in their tracks over misplaced nubs of quarter inch plastic.

Don’t get me wrong – Lego is pure genius, infinite possibilities limited only by imagination – a dream toy. Lego appeal isn’t limited to children, it sparks creative thinking in anyone who starts snapping blocks together. Much more than following sets of instructions, once you got the hang of it, Lego is akin to a game of chess. Kids visualized 2 or 3 moves in advance, formulated strategies and elaborate cerebral blue prints to bring their mind’s eye to fruition.

The name LEGO comes from letters in the Danish words “Leg Godt” which means “play well”. Danish manufacturer Lego patented their revolutionary 2×4 plastic block on January 28, 1958. In 2012, LEGO made over 45 billion pieces at a rate of 5.2 million an hour – enough to circle the globe 18 times. It would take 40 billion pieces to reach the moon. If you awarded an equal share of LEGO to every man, woman and child on the planet – we would all hold 86 pieces. LEGO “people” were introduced in 1978, since then over 4 billion rolled onto retail shelves. If you only had 6 ordinary 8 stud blocks – they could be combined in 915,103,765 ways. (2 blocks combine 24 ways, and 3 – 1,060).

LEGO is officially the largest toy company in the world. Congratulations – your leap past Hasbro and Mattel might have something to do with the hit LEGO movie – I’ll look the other way on that point. Heck – I’ll even shrug off pondering how many million barrels of oil were used to produce 50 plus years of indestructible plastic. LEGO reigns as the quintessential example of toy making brilliance.


Holey Space

Massive holes, deep holes, old holes – space holes. Holes in the vastness of space – vague, imperceptible apparitions free to behave anyway they please. Invisible cosmic riddles hidden from all but infrared light. Holes of unimaginable scope occupying the vast expanse  perceived as “empty”.  Holes without explanation or understanding – can they bend time, are they portals, do they obliterate everything foolish enough to wander up and say hello?

Images from the European Space Agency (ESA)  Herschel Space Observatory found a .2 light year wide hole in constellation Orion. Using infrared technology, Herschel verified a “blob” in nebula NGC 1999 (a star cluster within the confines of Orion) was indeed a hole in space as we know it. Science has a theory as to how the hole opened  (a void left when fledgling star cluster V380 Ori was born), beyond that – questions from depth to destiny are anyone’s guess.

A "hole in space" captured by Herschel.

A dark patch in a green blob of gas and dust (top) is a hole in the nebula NGC 1999.


Our Milky Way galaxy churns around a “super massive” black hole. Black holes are all about gravity – imagine our planet the size of a dime – small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but weighing the same and packing the exact gravitational forces as its former self. Next multiply that by hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions, and you have a black hole. A region of space so densely packed with matter, gravitational pull won’t let light escape. By definition – an object in space so dense that its escape velocity exceeds the speed of light.

Watch this video – black holes are beyond cool.


A Hole Story

We’ve been digging since the dawn of time – turning earth in search of water, metals, minerals and gems. Caves, tunnels, crypts, bunkers, treasure vaults, food storage – purposely hewn testaments to our ingenuity.

Bingham Canyon Copper Mine in Utah is the largest man made hole on the planet. Three quarters of a mile deep, two and a half miles wide, In continuous production since 1906 – now owned by United Kingdom based Rio Tinto – it dodged falling copper prices and a planned closure in 2013, when copper prices began to climb. Rio Tinto has plans to build a second mine, 2000 feet beneath the floor of the existing open pit.


Second place goes to the Mirny Diamond Mine in Siberia -1,722 feet deep and 3,900 feet wide – between 1955 and 2001, it produced over 10 million carats of diamonds every year. Large scale mining has ceased in the open pit, mining activity now takes place underground.


Kimberly Mine in South Africa deserves mention for reaching a depth of 705 feet, width 3,600 feet – dug entirely by hand. Between 1871 and 1914. upwards of 50,000 men armed with picks and shovels, extracted 6000 pounds of diamonds from this ridiculously steep round hole.

The Kola Borehole in Russia is in a league of its own. Who knew Russia and America not only raced for space – each wanted to be the first to reach Earth’s core. American effort “Project Mohole” exhausted funding in 1966, the site off the coast of Mexico in the Pacific Ocean was abandoned. Starting in 1970 until 1994, Russian scientists managed to bore a hole 7.5 miles into Earth’s crust. The project closed when temperatures at the business end exceeded 356 degrees Fahrenheit – super heated rock behaved more like plastic, making further drilling impossible. Far from being deemed a failure – core samples showed the existence of biological fossils in rock more than 2 billion years old. In all, 24 species of single cell marine plankton were identified.
Far from being the whole story – tomorrow I’ll look at ancient holes.

Starfish Prime

July 9, 1962 – 250 miles above uninhabited Johnston Island – a Pacific atoll between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands –  America detonated a nuclear warhead. As part of “Operation Fishbowl”, this wasn’t their first high altitude nuclear rodeo. High altitude nuclear testing began in 1958.  six detonations that year raised more questions than answers.  Hardly surprising poor instrumentation and inconclusive data, frustrated scientists on the forefront of nuclear exploration.

“Previous high-altitude nuclear tests: YUCCA, TEAK, and ORANGE, plus the three ARGUS shots were poorly instrumented and hastily executed. Despite thorough studies of the meager data, present models of these bursts are sketchy and tentative. These models are too uncertain to permit extrapolation to other altitudes and yields with any confidence. Thus there is a strong need, not only for better instrumentation, but for further tests covering a range of altitudes and yields.” – Defense Atomic Support Agency interim report on Starfish Prime, August 1962

Just after 11 PM Honolulu time July 9, 1962, Thor (the first USAF ballistic missile) unleashed Starfish Prime – Thor traveled almost 700 miles straight up before puttering out, as it fell towards Earth – at precisely 13 minutes 41 seconds after launch –  a programmed detonation took place around the 250 mile mark.

The question of how Earth’s magnetosphere reacts to thermonuclear assault became clear. The EMP (electromagnetic pulse) sent instruments off the scale, 900 miles away in Hawaii streetlights blew, burglar alarms sounded and a damaged telephone microwave link knocked out phone service between Kauai and other Hawaiian Islands. Auroras illuminated thousands of miles over the Pacific – according to a U.S. Defense Report, the New Zealand Navy on anti-submarine maneuvers, took advantage of light from the blast. Starfish created a “radiation belt”  – initially 3 “low earth orbiting” satellites went dark, ultimately a third of all “low earth” satellites clocked out. It would be 5 years before Starfish electrons completely left our atmosphere.

Starfish Prime was the last high altitude nuclear event – science wasn’t prepared for such a powerful EMP, further detonations would have been folly. A clever decision to place tracer isotopes in the package, allowed science to  map polar and tropical air masses.




37 and Counting

In the last 3 hours I’ve killed 37 mosquitoes in my bedroom – this isn’t an exaggeration or rough guess, I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to counting (so suspend guffaws or disbelief). It rained today – the first rainfall in ages (perhaps explaining the mosquito bloom). Under siege, compulsively swatting – I need help!

If I had scorpions, Lavender on the windowsill would keep them at bay. Sliced cucumber keep wasps at a polite distance -mosquitoes lack any hint of propriety, they just keep coming, and coming, and coming…..


Bee Sting

Everyone knows I’m accident prone – if there’s a patch of ice, hole in the ground, low hanging branch, piece of wood with a nail, or exposed wire – count yourself lucky, I’ll find it before it hurts anyone else. I couldn’t produce a list of accidental mishaps to save my life, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Breaking them into categories might be easier – number of times I’ve been hit by a drunk driver , given myself a black eye, slipped on ice, broken toes or fingers running into things, cut myself falling on or breaking glass, mishaps while walking the dog, accidents at work, and my latest category – bee stings.

I spotted the bee under my bedroom window – most nights it would have meant scooping up and releasing it outside. I can’t say if it was the heat, glass of wine, state of exhaustion or combination of factors, for whatever reason –  last night I stomped on bedroom bee, nary a thought other than  vacuuming in the morning. I went to bed without a single bee on my mind.

My first thought was nail or tack – still half asleep and headed for the bathroom, making sense of the pain proved difficult. I couldn’t see anything in my foot, back in my bedroom it became clear – carpet bee had waited in ambush at the foot of my bed. A perfectly reasonable circumstance – the one and only time I strayed from capture and release, the bee walked six feet across the floor to the exact spot I stepped out of bed.

It’s been decades since a bee sting assault, the pain came in relentless waves, each one more powerful than the last. The initial sting hurt, much like a sensation of stepping on something sharp. As the venom spread that changed to a strange throbbing burn, an oddly disquieting pain gaining intensity by the minute. Back in the bathroom, running my foot under cold water helped a little – not enough to muzzle outbursts of agony. Limping back to my room and Goggling first aid remedies was futile. I found a site listing home remedies in order of effectiveness. Number one was applying meat tenderizer – are you kidding me? Next came vinegar and baking soda, ice packs, cortisone cream, and ibuprofen for swelling and pain. I drank a glass of wine.





So Long Lab Rat

Have you ever pondered how science tests anti-depressants? For starters, an extremely forlorn test rat is required – hey, I have an idea, we’ll hang it by the tail until utter despair renders lab rat catatonic. In the interest of science, patiently monitor despondent rat for a few more days – lab rat mustn’t exhibit signs of hope or salvation. Cheer up suicidal rat – science deems you clinically depressed, and help is on the way. Sorry about your impalement, on the bright side take this shot of anti-depressant, if all goes well you’ll see the upside of your predicament.

Animal testing is hardly new, Greeks and Romans performed dissections on living animals to study circulatory systems. Ancient physicians practiced on animal subjects before applying techniques to human patients, Insulin was a direct result of Frederick Banning tying off the pancreatic glands dogs in 1921. Of the 98 Nobel Prizes awarded for physiology and medicine, 75 were direct results of research based on animal testing and experimentation. In 1981, Roger W Sperry, David H Hubel and Torsten N Wiesel were awarded the prize for brain function research using chimpanzees. By severing nerves between the left and right sides of the brain, they proved each side continued to learn, however sharing information between sides was impossible. Unfortunate Chimps (with almost 98% of their DNA matching humans)had no say in the matter.

In 1937, a American pharmaceutical company made a drug to treat strep infections, the manufacturing process required the use of a solvent at one stage – unknowingly using a substance poisonous to humans – over 100 people died, forcing creation of the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act – mandatory testing on animals became law.


I don’t have the stomach to parade a string of horror stories or post images of lab animals having a real bad day. Any reasonable person surely understands life isn’t always fair or pretty, animal testing is a complicated issue, certainly not one you can dismiss with black or white points of view. Questions of ethics and morality v. benefits and advancement, never reside outside contentious clouds of gray. I abhor the thought of animal cruelty. Like anything, there are genuine researchers with codes of conduct to match, and profit driven renegades with unscrupulous disregard for anything other than their own interests.

Lets ponder something less depressing – researchers at Kings College London have grown human skin from stem cells.  Unlike previous test tube epidermis – grown from cells removed in biopsies – Kings created “reprogrammed” cells – a process allowing unlimited production of epidermis. Infinite production of second rate skin wouldn’t do, these researchers figured out you needed to grow skin in low humidity, a genius tweak resulting in skin with a moisture barrier. I won’t  pretend to understand the science, but understand the magnitude of test tube skin with a moisture barrier behaving precisely as human skin.

Claiming an end to lab rats is a bit premature – applauding an innovation poised to eradicate millions of dead animals every year from cosmetic testing alone – that’s a step in the right direction.