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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Age and the Betrayal by the Mind

From University College London Brain Sciences

Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey

Throughout our lives we are burdened by a self-imposed delusion that we are somehow bullet-proof and immortal.  This is probably a reflection of the common insecurity that we all carry with us, whether latent or manifest.  But age has a way of shattering delusions, as we come to grips with how fragile a thing humans are.

It started a couple of years ago with memory problems.  When you're 61 years old, that's usually something to joke about.  But as time went on, things got worse, affecting the quality of my work.  My superiors, despite my difficulties, were massively patient.  Finally, out of an abundance of concern, I scheduled myself for a series of appointments with people whose specialty is the brain.

My first concern was the possibility of Alzheimer's, or early onset of senility.  I remembered my father's last two years of life when he was afflicted by both.  Bit by bit, he drifted away from us.  Towards the end, there were times when he couldn't recognize anyone.  I did not want to be that guy, especially this early.  I love my grandchildren, and the absolute last thing I wanted was to see the hurt on their faces when Grampa didn't know who they were.

I went to a neuropsychologist who put me through a battery of tests, lasting several hours.  I waited anxiously for the results which took about a week.  The results were both good and bad.  Of Alzheimer's and dementia, there weren't any indications of the presence of either.  I was happy about that, but frustrated, since I still had no answers for the problems I was having.

So I kept reading the report.  There I found the bad news.  I have not one, but two learning disabilities.  A very pronounced ADHD, and something called "cognitive impairment."  The gap between the verbal and non-verbal scores was 15, which I'm told is significant.  This explains much.

I won't bore you with the details, but when I presented these findings to my work superiors, they understood immediately.  The problems associated with these conditions were exactly what they were seeing in my work.  In the months since, we have been working together to try to find the best way to make me more productive.  But after numerous counseling sessions, I realized that there was really only one option.  If I didn't want to be shown the door, I had to retire.

Understand that I knew that the end of my working life was approaching.  The plan was to retire at 66.  This was driven by the economics of my past.  For most of my life, I was huge.  I really didn't take retirement planning seriously because I was convinced I wouldn't live long enough to get to that point.  But s bout with heart trouble, and one near-death experience, convinced me to have lap band surgery.  After losing about 150 pounds, and starting a rigorous exercise regimen, my heart health improved dramatically, along with my hypertension and diabetes.  Suddenly, I realized two things:  I would in fact live long enough to retire, and that day was coming very soon.

I began dumping huge amounts of my paycheck into retirement accounts.  In doing the calculations, I felt assured that I would have enough for Cheryl and I to have a nice, comfortably, and well-funded golden era.

But having this come upon me, things changed drastically.

Based on my reading of my bosses unspoken sense of the matter, I knew I had to do this soon, before circumstances forced them into something far more punitive.  I initially decided on December 31st of this year, but extended that a week to complete the pay period.  The mechanics of federal retirement are complex and take time to reach finality, so I wanted to end with a full paycheck.

Northern Virginia is an insanely expensive place to live.  That, coupled with our decision two years ago to convert from a 30-year to a 15-year mortgage meant that we had to sell the house, and soon because there was no way that we would be able to make this kind of a mortgage payment.  So for the past few weeks, we've been scrambling, selling the furniture we don't want to take with us, and donating and dumping a lot of other things.  As is usually the case, thing haven't gone as planned.  We wanted to have the sign in the front yard by the second week of October.  But it hasn't been until this week that we were able to get painters and carpet cleaners in to do that necessary sprucing up.  The painting was particularly important, since our grandchildren in the 3 years they and their parents lived with us expressed their artistic talents liberally on the walls.  I never had a problem with this, since I liked having their signature on our lives.  But potential owners will likely see things differently.  Even acknowledging that requirement, it was still a little sad to see their wonderful creations covered up.

Next week, we'll start interviewing realtors.  There are several types.  The expensive ones, who will market the heck out of your property, guaranteeing the sale in a specific time frame, or they would buy the house.  Others charge a low commission, but I have some very real doubts about their ability or commitment to market the property.  And the clock is definitely against us.  The good news is that the townhomes in our neighborhood have always sold within six weeks.  The DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) region is it's own kind of bubble where the housing market sits.  Plus, every four years, there is always a large influx of people moving and needing homes because of a little thing called the presidential election.

We're keeping busy, and that business has kept me from thinking too much about my health.  My head is still awhirl at how quickly this was laid on, and it probably won't sink in completely until several months after I leave federal service.  There is still a ton of things to get done before we can leave.  Moving, for example, for the first time in 25 years is going to be on our dime, so we're going to have to do this as cheaply as possible.  We'll hire a crew to pack and load a rental truck, and then drive the truck to our middle daughter's home in Colorado, who has joyously invited us to live with them, and spoil their kids.  It's nice to be loved.

I have said before that change is the only consistent thing in life, and in order to survive, one has to be ready to roll with said changes.  But it was the utter finality of this situation that makes things different.

In the back of my mind, however, I still worry about how my brain will change over the next few years.  I would rather lose a limb than my mind, and I really would like to hang on to some semblance of normality.  I keep reading that there is a cure coming, some say quite soon, for these issues.  I can say honestly that I've never rooted harder for scientists.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Preparing for the Final Frontier

Alpha Centauri A and B

Proxima is inside the red circle

Image By Skatebiker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46833562
Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
Except cited portions

On September15, 1965, the CBS television network debuted a new science fiction show entitled “Lost in Space.”  The Irwin Allen production followed the adventures of the Robinson family who were being sent on an interstellar mission to find a new place for an over-populated earth to call home.  The show was known far more for its campy style than anything else.  The main character became, not the Robinson’s, but the evil conniving Dr. Zachary Smith, who had snuck aboard as a foreign agent to sabotage the mission, but managed to get stuck there when the ship took off.  He was certainly the most buffoonish foreign agent ever, in addition to being a sniveling coward of the first order, and the episodes mainly revolved around Smith doing foolish things to get the Robinson’s in trouble.  It was not intellectual by any stretch, but managed to stay on the air for three seasons before being canceled, according to statements by cast and crew, due to declining ratings and increasing costs.

So what, you may ask.  Well, the destination for the Robinsons and their saucer-shaped Jupiter 2 spacecraft was Alpha Centauri, long known to be the closest star to our own solar system, about 4.2 light years away. According to the plot, there was a planet there that could support human life and it was the Robinson’s mission to survey the planet and report back.
As it has turned out, Irwin Allen seems to have been a prophet.

Today, we know Alpha Centauri is not just a single star, but a trinary system, consisting of two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, and a small and faint red dwarf known as Proxima Centauri.  The two larger stars orbit a common center every 80 or so years at a distance from each other ranging from roughly the same distance as our sun to Pluto at apogee to a perigee about the same distance as our sun is from Saturn.  Proxima lies further out, about 500 times the distance between our sun and the planet Neptune.  While A and B are 110% and 90% of our sun’s mass, making them roughly equal to ours, Proxima is far smaller, only about 12% of our sun’s mass.  In August 2016, the European Southern Observatory announced that an earth-sized exoplanet, dubbed Proxima B, had been discovered orbiting the cool, red star at about 20 percent of the distance of earth from our sun.  The planet orbits the star every once every 11 earth days, so it has a year of less than two earth weeks.  With the reduced output characteristic of red dwarf stars, that places Proxima B within the so-called “Goldilocks Zone,” close enough to have liquid water, yet far enough out that the water would not boil away.  Little is known about this planet.  An established astronomical procedure estimates that the planet’s mass is no less than one –and-a-quarter earths with an equilibrium temperature of -38 degrees F.  A little chilly for my tastes.  Scientists think that the planet is tidally locked, meaning that one side always faces its sun, while the other is in perpetual shadow, like Mercury.  But there is a narrow band along the terminator between day and night that might provide a potential habitable environment.  But if the planet has an atmosphere, a vehicle for transferring heat to the cold side, then temperatures might just be adequate for humans to live.

Of course some people are demanding that we travel there immediately, unaware that the distance involved, even with the fastest craft humans have ever built, means a transit time of 17,000 years.  But there are initiatives out there now that could reduce that travel time.

Breakthrough Starshot is a concept utilizing light sail spacecraft.  According to the designers, the system consists of about a thousand small craft with sails that would catch the emissions of  several earth-based 100 gigawatt lasers that would act on the sails in the same way the wind acts on the sails of a sea-going ship.  They estimate that the mothership attached to the individual modules could reach as much as 20% of the speed of light, making for a roughly 25-year journey. This project faces monumental technical challenges, but they insist they could have a craft underway in about 20 years.

Another possibility is an engine powered by nuclear fusion.  This involves compressing plasma bubbles inside a chamber until the bubbles reach a fusion state, then squirting the by-product out the back end.  Simulations suggest that such a system could get a spacecraft to the planet Mars in 80 to 90 days, rather than the current 500.  It isn’t known whether such a system could be viable for interstellar journeys.  At least no astronaut would get “Watneyed” on Mars.

Another idea involves nuclear fission, splitting atoms to create large amounts of heat to heat a lightweight propellant, like liquid hydrogen, and using that for thrust.  This system could get a spacecraft to Mars in about 90 days.  Again, there are significant technological and political hurdles to be surmounted.

A third possibility involves something called VASIMR, or “Variable specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket.”  VASIMR uses electromagnetic radiation to heat up and ionize gasses, like argon, xenon, or hydrogen and shooting that through a magnetic nozzle.  This may be the closest thing to the impulse engines on the fictional Starship Enterprise.  It’s slower than the other two, taking a year for a round trip, including time on the surface.  The interesting facet to this is by using hydrogen as a propellant, the fuel storage tanks could serve as a radiation shield for the crew, once they venture beyond the protective umbrella of earth’s magnetic fields.

The ultimate system would involve anti-matter – specifically anti-protons.  This really is Star Trek stuff, and as you might expect is decades, perhaps centuries away from realization.

The best part of this whole story is that the reaction to the news about the new planet shows that we humans haven’t lost our appetite for exploration.  The last time a human being left earth orbit was the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972, nearly 44 years ago, and that’s too long.

There are loads of problems to be solved, not the least of which is how to keep a crew from beating each other’s brains out on a long-duration mission.  Outside of our planetary cocoon is a universe filled with all matter of hazards from rocks to radiation.  It would be easy to just assume that it’s too dangerous out there for us.  But we have chosen to solve the dangers and find ways to get such missions done.  The first step is Mars, of course, and perhaps a manned exploration of the planet-sized moons of Jupiter and Saturn. 

We’re not yet ready for a trip to another star, but as the decades and centuries roll past, eventually we could undertake such a mission.  None of us will be around to see it, but space is patient.  After all, Proxima B isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.