Saturday, April 12, 2008

Binding Energy

The most tightly bound of the nuclei is 62Ni, a case made convincingly by M. P. Fewell in an article in the American Journal of Physics. Though the championship of nuclear binding energy is often attributed to 56Fe, it actually comes in a close third…

The high binding energy of the group of elements around A=60, typically called "the iron group" by astrophysicists, is significant in the understanding of the synthesis of heavy elements in the stars. It is curious that the abundance of 56Fe is an order of magnitude higher than that of 62Ni. Fewell discusses this point, and indicates that the reason lies with the greater photodisintegration rate for 62Ni in stellar interiors.
--The Most Tightly Bound Nuclei

When I was eight, and cute as a bug, I spent several months selling candy door to door, to finance my way to YMCA summer camp. The camp’s name was Widjiwagan, some sort of Indian name that is at least superior to Sissimanunu (from the Dick Van Dyke Show episode "The Brave and the Backache").

That first year I sold enough mints to pay for the whole thing, something I never did again, I suspect because they kept lowering the price (and quality) of the sweets, first to mint cookies, then to some other kind of cookie (peanut butter?) as I recall. Every year I sold about the same number of units, but the unit price declined, and so did my sales figures.

My camp councilor that first year was James “Cookie” Cook, whose nickname was sometimes pronounced “Kooky” after the TV character on “77 Sunset Strip.” One story that he told was about his appendectomy surgery, which was funny as all get-out to hear him tell it. He did also say that his physicians were surprised at the speed of his recovery, and his surgeon had mentioned something about how many people get all anxious and tense before surgery, and that can be seen in the internal organs themselves, which “try to hide” as it were, under stress. His, Cookie said, were pretty well displayed, so the surgeon said it was an easy surgery.

I have no idea of the veracity of all this, of course. But I like Cookie a lot, which is why I was anything but a happy camper the next year, when I learned that he’d died in a car crash the previous spring.

I read the Norman Cousins book Anatomy of an Illness when it first came out, after seeing Cousins on the Dick Cavett Show. By then I was well along the path to becoming the raging skeptic that stands before you today, but I don’t think I saw much harm in telling sick people to take what enjoyment they could from life; hey, it probably doesn’t hurt and it might do some good. And Cousins book was specifically about laughter, which I do revere. But over time I saw the simple and basic prescription transmogrify into, at least in some cases, yet another way of blaming the victim. You can get well if you just have the right attitude, so your being sick is obviously because you can’t control your attitude. Suck it up.

Anecdotally, well, I’ve known what seems to be more than my share of people who died, enough for the Jim Carroll song to resonate pretty strongly. Some of them had terminal illnesses and plenty of warning. I’ve also known a fair number of people who had what might have been fatal illnesses who nevertheless survived. In one period in the late 70s and early 80s, I specifically remember four people who developed pretty serious cancers. The two who had really positive and optimistic attitudes died; the two gloomy depressives lived.

Sure, sure, anecdotes aren’t statistics, but the statistics are just as suspect. Certainly being ill makes people anxious and depressed, so you start out with the obvious correlation that sick people are inevitably going to be less “positive and optimistic” than people who aren’t sick. The studies that attempt to assess “attitude” attempt to correct for this by objectively assessing people’s prognosis, then seeing if those with a “positive attitude” have better results. The real problem there is that people may subjectively have some information about their own health that doesn’t show up in the objective prognosis. If that is the case, then all the “positive attitude” does is to include that subjective judgment into the mix. In other words, optimism may well be an effect, not a cause.

Still, physicians are human, and nobody really likes dealing with gloomy people all the time. So if the “positive attitude” prescription is more for the benefit of the physician than the patient, it still might make the situation better for the patient if it improves the attitude of the physician. That explanation is less harsh than to say that it’s just more victim blaming, and I’ll take the incremental improvement. Blaming the physician is seldom any more productive than blaming the patient.

In 1989, my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, first liver cancer, then someone else thought it was lung. Both had abysmal prognoses. Some family connections got him into the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where they re-diagnosed him as having a carcinoid tumor, an intestinal tumor that was producing substantial amounts of serotonin, which accounted for some of his mood swings in the years preceding.

The tumor had metastasized to his liver, and there was the rub. Surgery could remove the colon tumors, but the liver tumors were inoperable, as such. But the Mayo boys had developed a life extending surgery that involved cutting the arterial blood supply to the liver. The liver can still live (albeit, not happily) on venous blood, and removing the arterial blood supply would starve the liver tumors and give an estimated 2-5 years of added life. Not the best result, but a lot of things can happen in 5 years including better treatments.

While we were visiting him prior to surgery, one of his doctors made a visit and made some remark about how important “attitude” was. As I’ve said before, I don’t have much of a poker face, so after he’d left, Dad said, “You looked pretty skeptical there when he said that.”

I said, “I don’t really think that attitude is that important. I think you’ll be okay because you have a healthy heart and good constitution, and I’m fine with that.” Dad nodded. Maybe he was getting tired of acting chipper all the time. Maybe he was relieved that I’d told him that I wasn’t going to blame his attitude if the outcome wasn’t as good as we hoped.

He survived the longer-than-expected four hours of surgery, then died in the recovery room, before he regained consciousness. The subsequent autopsy revealed that he had over 90% blockage in one of his coronary arteries, an absolutely “silent” condition, possibly because the serotonin had masked any chest pains he might have had.

Being right in the abstract and wrong in the particulars is seldom any solace. Things do not always work out for the best, unless your idea of “best” is that everybody dies, but life still goes on. I’m also none too keen on this unintentional irony business, so I try not to think of it too often. Yet there it is, emblazoned above my words, for the world to see.

If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron. – Spider Robinson


black dog barking said...

…I suspect because they kept lowering the price (and quality) of the sweets, first to mint cookies, then to some other kind of cookie (peanut butter?)…

Where in the Wisdom of the Invisible Hand is the incentive / bias to a sustainable presence? Sure, you'd like to make more each year, show some growth, but do you have to leach it from kids monetizing cuteness so they can go to camp?

The downside of manufacturer's margins (the upside being the giganto slice of each transaction that lands in operating profit) is that the profit-impact of cutting quality by cutting cost of production is negligible. Sending those cute kids around the neighborhood with empty boxes of candy doesn't affect this year's profit that much. Kinda kills repeat business.

Still, greed never sleeps.

Things do not always work out for the best, unless your idea of “best” is that everybody dies, but life still goes on.

Apparently life has a bias towards the sustainable, although "going on" portends a healthy dollop of chance.

James Killus said...

Life, greed, cuteness, they all go on, and they never sleep, at least not all at once.