Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sally Ride

Objectively, there's nothing that special about being an astronaut and even less about being the first of any particular gender, persuasion, or race. Oh good, I can see the artery pulsing in your neck from there and yes, that is a lovely pitchfork. Tungsten plated? Very nice.

Sure, it takes huge balls to operate machinery atop thousands of tons of metal as you gain some velocity (v) great enough to win against the Earth's otherwise very compelling acceleration due to gravity, -g. Yet a ballsy mechanical engineer with above-average fitness probably isn't that hard to come by. You apply to be a NASA astronaut through a soul-crushingly average government website that needs to answer questions such as whether they'll wave the height requirements (nope) and what college major is best (any, just like med school...with maybe more veracity?). In fact, there is a glut of incredibly qualified, astronaut-capable people theoretically milling around Southern Texas, waiting to be shot into space.

The logistics of spaceflight, not the people, is what generates astronaut scarcity. Those trained astronauts are technically astronaut wanna-bees due to the challenges of assembling that machinery and shooting it out of the atmosphere. If there were more spaceships, it would be trivial to staff them with exceptional people. Being an astronaut is artificially conflated with superior skill; it's likely harder to be a microsurgeon with an 80% dick-reattaching success rate than an astronaut.

Whither Sally Ride? Technically, she was the 38th astronaut. We rarely celebrate the 38th anything. No one ever gets excited about Colorado except when something bad happens (though currently they have a monopoly on that). She won a battle against institutional stupidity against women by being...herself. Not through crusading or anything like that. They just realized that shooting up a competent pair of boobs was better than the other available penis. So really, we technically should be mourning Sally Ride like any other person.

To be frank: it doesn't matter that being an astronaut isn't that hard. It's still pretty fucking cool. You're in space, that great *everything* outside of our tiny, Earthen sphere. The last great unknown, unless you count the entire ocean (or have ever read a Cracked article that will tell you otherwise). It's the mental leap of being in an environment where no one can help you if you fuck up and you're a single paint fleck away from being killed. Mother Nature isn't here. It's just Nature's nasty half-sister physics, the alcoholic with a mean streak. So Sally Ride, by definition, was doing something cool.

And she was doing it while being a relaxed and awesome dork. There are so few women dorks out there, but Sally Ride was one. She looked funny, even when she was permitted to stop having that horrifying 80's blow-out. She always seemed a little socially awkward. I mean, she wrote a story about eating a sandwich. In space.. So a female dork was doing something cool, which was an inspiration itself.

And then, she wasn't just Sally Ride. She was Dr. Ride, "I have a PhD and I need to deal with all sorts of shit on Earth to make it better, so here I am founding programs and writing books." She spent years slapping the sciences around to make them better for girls and encouraging girls to be better scientists. When she died this week, that force evaporated. And that is a goddamn shame.

I was never technically inspired by Sally Ride: I'm a soft scientist who struggles with electrical engineering. I couldn't tell you much about the missions she flew since I was just learning to write back then. But knowing she was out there, a woman who resembled me in more than a few ways, and that she'd seen the opposite side of the stratosphere was somehow encouraging. That she was around afterward making life better was emboldening. The schmucks who ask, "Well, how many women went into science because of Dr. Ride?" don't realize that she didn't make all of us do anything in particular. Sometimes, her existence validated ours. If she could get to outer space just by being herself...why the hell couldn't we?

Dr. Ride: I hope you get to see everything you weren't able to here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Neuronal repair and evolution

When it comes to neuronal repair, the actual reason that we can't do it in the CNS is a lot more complicated than the article led you all to believe.Here's the original segment, containing a lot more of the science and a joke about driving the wrong way on an on ramp, inspired by a depressingly true story.

Most neural growth occurs in the axon, the signal transmitting part of the neuron.  During fetal development, axons need to navigate without the benefit of GPS, mostly because the average uterus only gets one bar of service. (Or serviced by one bar. Whichever.) Luckily, axons are tiny frat boys: they can be attracted or repelled by chemicals called chemotrophic factors, eventually stumbling their way home to pass out on their molecular sofas. Once in place, the axons are surrounded by support cells called glia and the whole thing is shipped out without any quality control whatsoever.

This sort of precise neural direction is required during development. Screw up any step and you'll end up with some variety of catastrophic neurological failure ranging from inability to feel painto being born with only one eye There are billions of neurons and they all need to get to where they're going and goddamn stay put. And this is where the glia work their dark magic.

Those glia are the In a healthy person,that keeps the axon from wandering. But after a spinal cord injury, the growing axon is doing the equivalent of backing down the off ramp because it took the wrong exit. The glia stop all growth while the axon frantically tries to explain that it's late for a synapse in the knee.