What is your favorite surgery? Mine, without a doubt, is trepanation. Trepanation is the deliberate creation of a hole in the head using surgery, exposing the Dura Mater (thick covering) of the brain. This website, "The Trepanation Guide" which advocates trepanation, describes it as "...oldest surgical procedure practiced by mankind." I found what I consider a more responsible description in Wikipedia as "perhaps the oldest surgical procedure for which there is archaeological evidence." After all, doesn't it seem reasonable that soft tissue surgeries, such as castration or appendix removal, may have been performed or attempted, without leaving a trace?
Evidence of trepanation is widespread, and has been traced back to neolithic times in Europe and at least 2500 years ago in South America. Below are pictures of an Incan skull from Peru (left). In ancient Peru trepanation was apparently fairly common--approximately 1000 Incan skulls have been identified. The picture on the right was discovered in Germany. One archaeological site in France identified 40 out of 120 skulls that had been trepanated. Many trepanated skulls have multiple holes, with the margins of "successful" surgeries often showing signs of healing. Sharper edged holes may indicate an "unsuccessful" surgery. Success rates have been estimated 75-80% in South America, and a remarkable 90% in Europe.
I find it surprising that, given the absence of antibiotics and modern anesthesia, that they had any success at all.
Why would anyone want to have a hole bored in their head? One can imagine that ancient humans might have used the technique to try and treat headaches, dizziness, epilepsy, evil spirits, tumors, head injuries, hematomas, etc.--virtually anything that might be related to the head. But, widespread use of trepanation and the presence of as many as 4, 5 or even 7 holes, might suggest a ritual aspect of the surgery. With the advent of modern medicine, trepanning has largely, gone the way of blood letting and bulbing, as an archaic treatment. There are modern, defensible uses of trepanation, to treat hematomas and assorted brain surgeries, but, of course, the bone is generally replaced after the surgical procedure (Many docs play golf. I wonder if they mumble to themselves "Always replace your divots," at the close of surgery.)
However, there are a few advocates of the surgery for its supposed psychological benefits. Bart Huges, sometimes spelled Hughes, saw trepanation as a "pathway to higher consciousness." A recurring theme that I see in advocates is that it is an attempt to increase blood flow to the brain in an attempt to recapture the plasticity and "happier and more energetic" state of mind in an infant. The rationale is that the flexible fontanel (soft spot) in a baby's cranium allows for more blood flow, which is restricted with hardening of the skull as we mature. The result of the surgery, as the "Trepanation Guide" expresses it, is that you are “…happier, more energetic and less prone to crippling bouts of ennui. You'll ascend to the child's plane of acute consciousness from which you disembarked to enter the lowly malaise of adulthood."
Hmm, to put it mildly, I have my doubts regarding the benefits.
Joey Mellen wrote a book called Bore Hole, which described his experiments with trepanation. His first attempt was unsuccessful. Mellen ended up hospitalized and was recommended for "psychiatric evaluation." His second attempt, with the aid of his girlfriend Amanda Fielding, worked. As Mellen described it,
“After some time there was an ominous sounding schlurp and the sound of bubbling. I drew the trepan out and the gurgling continued. It sounded like air bubbles running under the skull as they were pressed out. I looked at the trepan and there was a bit of bone in it. At last!”
Yeeesh, not something I would want to go through. Fielding later trepanned herself. Here is a link to an interview with Amanda Fielding, who founded the Beckley Foundation, which investigates consciousness and advocates drug reform, ran for office in the British Parliament in 1979 and 1983, although she described her candidacy as more of an "art project," intended to "try to get the medical profession to agree that [tepanation] is an interesting subject and is worthy of research,"rather than a serious attempt to get elected. Below is an interesting campaign poster.
There is an hour long documentary called "A Hole in the Head," which is available for purchase. I haven't seen the film, but it might be interesting.
If you want more info more on trepanation I recommend the Skeptic's dictionary and from this article from Charles D. Gross at Princeton.
Let me close with a couple videos. On the left is an interview with Bobby Lund, an advocate of trepanation, and on the right is a toe-tappin' light-hearted look at the process(along with some other interesting history of anatomy) from Zoochosis.
The above picture has been attributed to NASA. But,I can't find the original link. Awful pretty. Reminds me of Johnny Cash.
About a year and a half ago I posted a very simple blog-entry, entitled "Who Knew the Sun Could Create Such Beautiful Music," highlighting a video from my favorite government agency,NASA. Now I found another just-as-impressive video. I am pleased that NASA, and the Sun, are still making beautiful music.
Ah, the joys of theater! I recently wrote a short play that was performed as part of a showcase entitled "New Blood" by the amazing folks at Writers and Actors Reading and Performing (WARP) which I've been a part of for several years now. The showcase was produced by Ellen Covey and videographed by Jeff Weedman. My play, entitled "Fungal Attraction," was capably directed by John Paul Sharp and Mary E. Brown, starring Laurel Clark as Hedley, Bigby Dommage as Dex, as Jesse Buckley as Lefty. The play asks the hypothetical question: What if you didn't have voices in your head? What if they were in your feet? And, what if the feet didn't like each other? Enjoy.
By the way, my collection of short plays is still available from Amazon as either a Kindle E-Book or a paperback. Check out this link to check it out.
I have some ISSUES with some scientists and mathematicians. Some examples follow.
Sir Isaac Newton
You know, one more prismatic color, and a little bit of shuffling, and we could have had IB GROOVY instead of ROY G BIV. Damn you Newton! You coulda done better!
Pierre de Fermat
Yeah, sure you had a a clever proof for your theorem that you just couldn't quite fit into the margin of your book. Yeah, right. Sure you did. Well, I call bullshit. You just wanted to mess with people--and it worked--for 358 years. Come on. Admit it. You never had a proof. What a poser.
Albert, you suck! If E didn't equal MC squared, we might be able to exceed the speed of light, and make interstellar travel a practical reality. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks we probably can't do it. Go re-work your math, willya?..and quit messing with my dreams.
You suck too! If Lamarck had been right, then parents might be able to pass a college education on to their kids without paying for it. I hope epigenetics kicks your bearded ass! Go back to staring at barnacles ya loser!
James Watson and Francis Crick
You two guys can go suck an egg. It woulda been a whole lot easier to visualize DNA replication and transcription if you made it flat instead of all twisty. Fix that, dammit!
Gads! You math- and scientist-types are getting on my nerves. Makin' things so dang complicated! What pests!
Oh, and one more thing--about Pi--I'm rounding it down to 3.141. And if you don't like it, STUFF IT UP YOU NOSE.
"Everything should be made as simple as possible,
but not simpler." Source unclear
A few weeks ago I gave a talk to The Seattle Skeptics about Elephants. I also blogged about theses magnificent beasts here and here. A recording of the talk is available through the previous links. The talk was really directed at a general discussion about some of the skeptical issues surrounding elephant biology, such as, are elephants capable of artistic creation? Do elephants show altruistic behavior? Are they really afraid of mice? What I didn't really discuss is how endangered these magnificent animals are. Sadly, according to this article from the Smithsonian, "The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 470,000 to 690,000 African elephants remain in the wild...
[but]...elephant poaching began picking up in 2008 and peaked in 2011, with around 40,000 animals killed that year alone." The war on poaching continues. The problem of poaching of rhinos is even more dire.
Most of the poaching is a response to the black market demand for elephant ivory and rhino horn, primarily in Eastern countries. This demand is completely nonsensical, since there are ample plastic substitutes for elephant ivory. Heck, there is even a plant substitute in the form of "vegetable ivory," which is derived from the endosperm of palm seeds. Poaching of rhinoceros makes even less sense. Rhino horn, which is used as a folk medicine to treat a variety of ailments (primarily cancer), but also, of all things, hangovers, is composed mainly of keratin--the same stuff in nails and hair. It would be a tragedy to lose African elephants and rhinos for such ridiculous reasons.
But, my intent in this blog entry is not to provide an exhaustive treatise about elephant or rhinoceros biology. I want to provide publicity for the Global March For Elephants and Rhinos which will take place this Saturday October 4th. The above link has more info about events that might be near you. There will be protests in many locations. The local Seattle event, which I intend to attend, will take place in the International Children's Park beginning at Noon. I urge you to attend. The Facebook Event page, lists the following speakers and events:
Tom Skerritt, Actor and Conservationist
Lisa Kane JD, Lawyer, Co-Author and Co- Editor of An Elephant in the Room
Wendie Wendt, Lawyer, Executive Director of Big Life Foundation. Former Board Member of PAWS, Former Vice President and Director of Fundraising for U.S Friends of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Comedian Cathy Sorbo will be Emceeing the event!
We are excited to announce that we will have African Drummers!
So, I hope to see you Saturday. Let's do what we can to prevent the hunting to extinction of these magnificent animals.
Today I watched the very last episode of the very last season, of "Enterprise," the last Star Trek series on television. I have now seen ALL of the episodes of every series: Star Trek (the original series), The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. (No, I haven't watched the cartoons). It's been a great ride. All of them I acquired over the last several years from the Seattle Public Library, the greatest library in my world--so I could watch them without commercial interruption. I will say this, Star Trek is not (IMO) the "best" television fiction in history (Many others, including Breaking Bad, Slings and Arrows, Twilight Zone, Downton Abbey and West Wing, vie, in my mind, for that distinction.) But, I can say, without reservation, that Star Trek has been, by far, the most personally inspiring. I dream of a day when we can all live in harmony, independent of class and race distinction, and monetary slavery, exploring the universe, boldly going where no one has gone before. Someone once defined the difference between science fiction and fantasy. They said sci-fi (which they preferred to call speculative fiction) describes what possibly could happen, whereas fantasy, although imaginative and fun, can't possibly happen. I think this is a pretty blurry distinction, but it is evident that Star Trek has featured some concepts that have become true, even commonplace (think cell phones, computer tablets, and flat screen televisions). Star Trek also explores the human psyche, frequently exploring ethical dilemmas that are resonant today and promise to continue to be challenges in the future. I really don't know, and I have considerable doubts, that we will ever overcome the barriers of physics, making interstellar travel, or transporters possible--but I hope so. I also don't know, but I have have hopes, that one day humanity will overcome petty differences that divide us, making a Star Trek-like future possible. Quoting Langston Hughes,
“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”
Below, left, is a nice video that summarizes some of the prescient story Star Trek story elements that we see in the real world today. On the right is a collection of the inspiring openings and credits for each series. No, you're not going to watch all of the second video, but I just wanted it here.
Let me add one more item. A couple days ago I saw a fantastic Nova documentary on the search for extra-terrestrial life. Chock-full of original NASA footage. Almost two hours long, and worth every moment of your time. When I write "fantastic," this is only an adjective, every bit of this is the real thing. Check it out here.
Thank you Gene Roddenberry, for sharing your vision with the world.
This is likely my last blog entry before I take my annual journey into Black Rock Desert for the amazing festival known as Burning Man. I wrote an article that I submitted to the Black Rock Beacon, one of the more popular publications on the Playa. Below is the article submitted, but I have no way of knowing whether it will be accepted or modified.
A TRIBUTE TO MARTHA: THE LAST PASSENGER PIGEON
By Scot Bastian
Lost in the turbulence of history, overshadowed by the beginning of the “Great War” known as World War I, was a momentous event in the chronicles of ecology: the extinction of the last known passenger pigeon, The last known individual of her kind, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago on September 1st 1914, exactly 100 years ago on the last day of this year’s Burning Man.
Passenger Pigeons were a force majeure in the Eastern landscape. Once numbering in the billions, they were quite possibly the most numerous bird species in the world. When Europeans arrived in North America, population estimates ranged from 3 to 5 billion, approximately 25 to 40% of the total North American birds. They traveled in huge flocks, one of which was described as a mile wide and three hundred miles long, and taking 13 hours to pass overhead. The flocks were so dense in number that they were said to eclipse the sun. Passenger pigeons were named for the French word passenger, which translates as “passing by.” They were half again as large as their cousin the mourning dove, and resembled its Western relative, the band-tailed pigeon. The range of the passenger pigeon extended north into Canada and west to Eastern Texas and Eastern Montana. When these immense flocks roosted hundreds of millions of birds would leave a swath of destruction, scouring the landscape for food, and crushing trees with their collective weight. The largest recorded nesting colony was 850 square miles. In spite of their enormous numbers they are gone. Gone forever. Why did they disappear? The basic problem was that they were delicious. The young birds, called squabs, were particularly prized. Their undoing was the density of their flocks and their propensity for colony breeding. The density of the nesting communities made them easy prey—a discharge from a double-barreled shotgun blast could kill dozens of birds. They were collected by the thousands using nets.
The last confirmed wild passenger pigeon was observed in Indiana in 1902. Martha, was named after the First Lady, Martha Washington. After the death of her cage companions (including George) a reward was offered for finding a potential mate—but none was ever found. Martha, the last of her kind, an endling, died of natural causes at the probable age of 29 years. Her remains are on display at the Smithsonian Museum.
Other than the fortuitous date marking the centenary since the extinction of passenger pigeons, what does this have to do with Burning Man? I think that Burners have a special appreciation for the transience of all things. Our “roost” on the Playa can be compared to the crowded passenger pigeons that are now gone. Many do not realize that, for most species, extinction is the norm. Nearly 99% of all the species that ever lived are believed to be extinct. Humans are the most prolific primates on the planet, but as evidenced by the passing of the passenger pigeon and the dinosaurs, being multitudinous provides no guarantee for survival. Burners, like passenger pigeons, live a bold, noisy existence, thriving in groups, and like Martha and her kin, Burning Man will vanish without a trace. Let’s hope the same fate doesn’t await the human race.
More information is available about Passenger pigeons and Martha from Wikipedia, and from Project Passenger Pigeon. There is an excellent new monograph about the species A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg.
A couple of vids for your enjoyment.
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Pave paradise, and put up a parking lot" Joni Mitchell.