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Al Stahler: Finding balance

Al Stahler
Columnist

Suppose we were to think of disease as (forgive me) a game, two teams facing off: “The Bug” vs. “Us.”

As with more conventional games, it’s helpful to have an announcer to call the plays, to help us understand what’s happening on the field and maybe point out things we would not otherwise have noticed.

In the game of disease, play-by-play is provided by epidemiologists.

Epidemiology: “-ology” tells us it’s a science; “epi-” means “on” or “upon”; and “demos” means “the people” (as in “democracy”). Epidemiology is the study of something that has befallen the people.

In any game, you’ve got to have a strategy — you’ve got to think ahead. Thinking takes brains, but “The Bugs” don’t have brains, and, for most of life’s history, the brains of the “Us” team weren’t much to brag about, either.

What do we do when we think? We imagine a situation and then imagine how that situation might play out. “What happens if I do this?” “Aha! She might do that!” “Well, if she does that, what, then, should I do?”

Evolutionary “thinking” means doing the actual experiment … actually doing “this,” and waiting to see what happens.

Experiments, of course, take time. But evolution has time to burn … not just years … not just millions of years … evolution has been happening – viruses and bacteria trying out this and that, to see what would happen for billions of years. And, for all those billions of years, the victims of those bugs have been doing their own experiments.

That’s a lot of thinking, a lot of experiments leading to horrendously complex systems of attack, equally complex systems of defense, counter-attack, counter-defense …

With the success of antibiotics against bacteria, there was a very brief period when it was felt that a golden age was upon us: a time when humanity would no longer suffer disease. “Magic bullets” would seek out and destroy Team Bug … while ignoring Team Us.

It didn’t take long for Team Bug to demonstrate that, through billions of years of experimentation, it could dance around magic bullets.

Exploring the land behind the looking glass, Alice meets the Red Queen. The Red Queen is running … hard. Alice has to run hard herself, to keep up. But they’re getting nowhere. As the Red Queen explains, just to stay where you are requires you run as fast as you can.

To actually get somewhere, you have to run twice as fast as that. Among epidemiologists, this is known as the Red Queen’s Dilemma.

As Team Bug and Team Us fight it out, other teams of bugs are watching, hoping to jump in, maybe even take over from Team Bug. Meanwhile, gazillions of other bugs — our microbiome, in our gut, on our skin, in our nostrils — work to keep us healthy. They “know” they’ve got a good thing going. It’s complicated.

So epidemiologists gather statistics – who falls sick, who recovers, who harbors The Bug but never notices, who never becomes infected, who took this medication or that – and try to figure out how we got here, where we may be going.

LOOKING UP

The abbreviation for pound is “lb” … how does “lb” come from p-o-u-n-d?

It doesn’t. Back when a grocer needed to weigh out some peanut butter, she would use a balance – a little teeter-totter. Putting a one-pound weight on one end of the balance, she’d scoop peanut butter onto the other end, until the teeter-totter balanced.

Looking up into the night sky this summer, one of the pictures painted with stars will be the constellation Libra – “The Balance” – from which we get the “l” and the “b” for lb.

From “Libra” comes the word “equilibrium.” The whole universe is groping towards equilibrium … toward balance.

Holes fill up, hills flatten out – both are out of equilibrium with their surroundings.

Off the stove, hot soup cools; out of the freezer, ice cubes melt – these, too, are out of equilibrium.

Everything is looking to come into balance.

The recent storm was created by air and water, seeking equilibrium. Warm air rises and cools. Water vapor condenses out of cool air to form clouds. The tiny droplets in clouds are more stable – closer to equilibrium – when they combine to form larger droplets. But large drops cannot hang suspended for long, and they fall, as rain.

The rain fell mainly from stratus clouds – clouds stratified, in a flat layer. After the storm, warm air rising upwards creates cumulus clouds – giant white cauliflowers. And around those clouds – blue sky, where cooler air is falling.

Sometimes warm air has to rise really high before anything happens, but then it can get really cold, and, instead of forming droplets, the water forms crystals of ice – cirrus clouds, mare’s tails – which create haloes around the sun, and sundogs – tiny rainbows, off to the side of the sun. Haloes and sundogs are common, but to see them, you’ve got to look up.

Warm air rises and so does warm rock. Warm rock rising in mid-Pacific creates the volcanoes of Hawaii. Warm rock rising, then flowing sideways, beneath North America and beneath the Pacific pushes the floor of the ocean one way, North America another. The edge of the ocean floor meets the edge of the continent along the San Andreas fault.

But there’s a problem. When you look down from space, and see how the Pacific and North America are moving … for every foot they move, they only slide three-quarters of a foot along the San Andreas and other Bay Area faults. North America and the Pacific must be sliding that extra quarter-foot … somewhere else.

There was an earthquake in Nevada last week. That earthquake was a tell-tale of the missing quarter-foot of slide between North America and the Pacific.

North America and the Pacific are sliding past each other … not just along the San Andreas and neighboring faults. Continent and ocean floor also slide past each other – and generate earthquakes – in the region east of the Sierra.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors on KVMR-FM, and can be reached at stahler@kvmr.org.


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