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plasma ball

Plasma ball

As a young boy, I was fascinated by static electricity. Electricity that I could produce! I wondered why some scientist hadn’t figured out how to harness this power to make electrical devices go. Those pops and zaps and sparks when we rub our feet on the carpet or take clothing off or out of the dryer seemed to come from nowhere.

I don’t recall ever having a science lesson in school about static electricity, though I have tenuous memories of rubbing balloons to produce it that may have been a class demonstration.

This morning there was a zap when I kissed my wife good morning. Ah, a spark is still there! I don’t want science to kill romance, but it led me to do some research into what was really happening.

Static electricity is one of the oldest scientific phenomena people observed and described. Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus made the first account; in his sixth century B.C. writings, he noted that if amber was rubbed hard enough, small dust particles will start sticking to it. Three hundred years later, Theophrastus followed up on Thales’ experiments by rubbing various kinds of stone and also observed the “power of attraction.” But neither of these natural philosophers found a satisfactory explanation for what they saw.                 Source 

Of course, it would be another two thousand years before the English word “electricity” was coined (from Latin “electricus,” meaning “like amber”). In that time, static electricity was more of a magic trick used to make things magically attract – like a paper to a charged hand.

Static electricity come from some electrons that are on the surface of any material. When certain materials rub against each other, electrons are pulled from the weaker material to the stronger binding force. Shuffle your feet along a carpet and then touch the metal doorknob and Zap, a small lightning bolt.

In winter or any time when the humidity is low, we notice it more because dry air is an electrical insulator. (Moist air acts as a conductor. )

How much power is in that spark? Typically, the amount is low. Well, the voltage can actually be very high – 100 times that of the outlet on the wall. But voltage is just a measure of the charge difference between objects. The thing you have to worry about is current. That is the measure of how many electrons are flowing and in your static electricity zaps it is just a few electrons. But those few electrons can have an impact.

On one dry winter day, I returned from a walk with my iPod Shuffle earbuds still in my ears listening to a podcast, and pulled off by zip-up sweatshirt and then touched the iPod. Pop! Not only did I feel a charge that ran up the wires to my ears, but the data stored on the device was damaged.

antistatic wristband

My experience didn’t damage the device itself, but static electricity can deliver a fatal charge to sensitive electronics. When people work on some electronics (such as inside a computer), they often wear an antistatic wristband. The wristband is grounded to some safe metal object nearby that wouldn’t be damaged by a static zap.  You could also ground yourself by touch a metal object or holding one (think of Ben Franklin’s key at the end of a kite string). Metal is a great conductor and the electrons are very happy to jump there.

A more serious though less likely threat is when you discharge electricity near flammable gases. My father showed me when I was quite young that when he was working on his car’s engine or around gasoline (including near a gas station pump), he would ground himself before touching the pumps or engine or car battery. I still do it when I’m working around my lawn mower and snowblower, though the risk is probably quite minimal.

People have humidifiers in their homes in winter for the positive effect it has on your skin and nasal passages, but it also reduces charge buildups. You might add fabric softener sheets to your dryer load to not only soften the clothing but to lessen static charges that make clothing cling. They actually tend to help balance out the electrons.

Woolen winter clothing and rubber-soled shoes will give you more of a static charge than cotton clothing and leather-soled shoes.

Does static electricity have any practical uses, as I had wondered in my childhood?  We have probably all seen a electrostatic generator make someone’s hair stand up or touched a ball that then produced lightning bolts from our fingers. But we can’t use it to power our smartphone – high voltage, low current. Still, it does have practical applications.

Electrostatic generators such as the Van de Graaff generator, and variations as the Pelletron, are used in physics research.

Many photocopiers use electric attraction to adhere charged toner particles onto paper. Some air fresheners (such as Fabreze) add more than a nice artificial fragrance because they are also discharging static electricity on dust particles which dissembles the bad smell.

Charged plates are used in some home heating and cooling systems and in industrial applications to capture dust, smoke and other minute particles. As particles move through the system, they pick up negative charges from a metal grid and are attracted to plates that are positively charged where they can be disposed of manually.

Static electricity is used in nanotechnology to pick up single atoms by laser beams. Nanoballoons can be switched between an inflated and a collapsed state using static electricity, and one day they might be used to deliver medication to specific tissues within the body.

On a more personal level, you may also see some more New Age than scientific applications, such as wearing a negative ion band on your wrist. These wristbands are promoted as being useful for sports and any time or activity where you need a power boost or increased energy. In this stressed world, that probably means all day, every day.

The claim – which may be definitively unproven but has some science behind it – is that the negative ions can “balance” you and can help sleep, sinuses, hay fever, asthma, the immune system, relaxation, stability, energy levels, concentration, joint and muscle aches, arthritis, circulation and more. Sounds rather miraculous.

Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules and we inhale them in abundance in certain places (those waterfalls, beaches, mountain streams).  When I’m watching the ocean waves on a beach or standing by falling water, I do feel “better.” Of course, some of that feeling comes from the natural beauty of the setting, but research also seems to indicate that some of that positivity in me comes from the higher number of negative ions there. Yes, this negative is positive in another sense. The opposite effects occur in a sealed office building: more positive ions, less aesthetics, more stress.

On the website webmd.com, I read that negative ions that get into our bloodstream are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy.

I wrote an entire post some years ago about the positive effects of negative ions, but I didn’t make the connection to static electricity.

We know that the dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge.

An air ionizer (or negative ion generator) is a device that uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Air ionizers are often used in air purifiers so that particles are attracted to the electrode in an effect similar to static electricity. These devices can cost hundreds of dollars for “professional” ionizers and less for household room devices.

One trendy application I see in offices lately are Himalayan salt lamps.
These are made from Himalayan pink salt which has minerals and is supposedly free from toxins. Lit and heated by a small lightbulb inside the hollowed out salt, it releases negative ions.

In a new Age way, these are said to create harmony and balance mind, body, and soul , and so make a good addition to a place used for meditation, yoga, or sleeping. I suppose the idea of having them in offices is to balance the positive ions that dominate those sterile spaces. Maybe they add some earth and fire elements to the feng shui of the space.

I say “New Age” when explaining these lamps because I could find no scientific evidence that they have any positive effects on people near them. But I don’t dismiss any possible placebo effect.

Can any type of device that produces negative ions have a positive effect on people and perhaps even act like a mild antidepressant? It seems too early to know for sure. Does filtering out dust mites and dander improve health? Sounds logical. Does putting negative ions into the air improve your mood? There is some evidence that it does.

Of course, the negative ions when I’m standing next to the Great Falls of the Passaic River blow away the ones coming off a salt lamp, so I will stick to natural negative ion producers for the time being.

The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey by Wally Gobet on Flickr

 

Phones and computers are good about adjusting to turning back the clocks. People don’t adjust as easily. Our internal clocks have no settings that can be reprogrammed.

Hey, it’s only an hour difference. “But it turns out that the master clock in our brain is pretty hard-wired, ” says Fred Turek, director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology at Northwestern University.

Our internal clock is synchronized to the 24 hour light/dark cycle and daylight is a primary cue to reset the body’s clock each day.

It should only take a few days for your body and brain to catch up, but that the shift to daylight saving time in the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and traffic accidents according to a new study which found an increase in the number of patients admitted to the hospital for a atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) in the days following the spring time change.

One of the newer findings has been that the internal clock in our brains that we often refer to is supplemented by a time-keeping mechanism in every cell. Our bodies seem to like routine and when we disrupt those with clock changes or changes to our sleep or eating routines, it can increase the risk of metabolic disease.

Add to this the decrease in daylight also throws off routines, socialization and our emotional rhythm.

Okay, enough bad news. What can we do to compensate?

  • Go to bed an hour or so earlier.
  • Maximize your exposure to daylight in the morning hours.
  • Use foods that nourish – add protein sources like fish, nuts and other plant-based proteins such as tofu are good if you’re trying to cut back on meat.
  • Salmon and tuna are good for getting omega-3 fatty acids which regulate mood by quieting down the body’s response to inflammation.
  • Eat dinner early and keep it light or even make midday your main meal.
clocks

Illustration Credit: “Tic Toc” by Katherine Streeter for npr.org

 

Today is Armistice Day Armistice Day which marks the armistice signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 between the Allies of World War I and Germany to end World War I – the “war to end all wars.” It is also known as Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.

But 1918 was also the year of another kind of worldwide war against the Spanish influenza pandemic. There is no special day to mark this and I doubt that many Americans today know about it or think about it. You may have gone last month for your flu shot, but never thought about the fact that October 1918 was the deadliest month in United States history. 195,000 Americans died in that one month as a result of influenza.

Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, 1918

By the time the pandemic had run its course, an estimated 500,000 Americans had died of the flu. It is hard to grasp that number. It is more deaths than the American combat fatalities in all the wars of the 20th century combined. And worldwide, the flu may have claimed as many as 100 million lives.

My mother was born in December of that year and it was feared that she or her mother might get the flu. The start of that flu season was in March with the first recorded case being a mess cook in Fort Riley, Kansas. There are still several hypotheses about how and where the flu pandemic began and no conclusive answer.

Though it became known as the “Spanish flu,” it did not originate in Spain. Spain seemed at the time to be particularly hard hit by the virus. I say “seemed” because the Spanish media covered it extensively, but the United States, the UK, France, and Germany deliberately underplayed the virus’ effect in hopes of keeping up wartime morale. Many Americans thought, as with many military wars, that it was something happening far from our shores.

Recent studies of the incomplete medical records from the time seem to show that this viral infection itself was not more aggressive than any previous influenza. Oddly, it seemed to affect healthy people more than would have been expected. Rather, factors such as malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals and poor hygiene promoted bacterial superinfection which killed most of the victims after a prolonged period.

There was what was called a “second wave” that year of the same virus. We know it was the same strain because those who had survived a first infection had immunity in a second exposure. But after the lethal second wave struck in late 1918, new cases mysteriously dropped abruptly.

In Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in the week ending October 16, but by Armistice day influenza had almost disappeared from the city. No one is certain why. Did doctors get better at preventing and treating the pneumonia that developed after the victims had contracted the virus? Did the virus mutate extremely rapidly to a less lethal strain?

Could it happen again? That is the stuff of movies, like Outbreak, Contagion and World War Z, all of which make reference to the 1918 pandemic. Certainly our medical knowledge and treatments are much better today. Research done in 2007 reported that monkeys infected with the recreated flu strain has the same symptoms of the 1918 pandemic. They died from what is called a cytokine storm, which is when there is an overreaction of the immune system. That may explain why is may explain why the 1918 flu had a surprising powerful effect on younger, healthier people. A person with a stronger immune system would ironically have a potentially stronger overreaction than a less healthy person.

My sons gave me a Fitbit for Christmas in 2015 and I have tried to hit the recommended 10,000 steps a day. That’s the number that has always been recommended. I don’t hit that number most days. I seem to average out at about 6000. That’s better than nothing but not enough. But now it seems even 10,000 steps isn’t “enough.”

The best thing about having one of these fitness trackers is that it makes you mindful of your inactivity. On lousy winter days when I stayed in the house and worked on the computer, I would log less than 2000 steps.

Now, on the Fitbit blog they discuss a recent study  that found that employees who sit the most tend to have higher BMIs, bigger waistlines, and higher cholesterol than those who moved more. That is not a shocking result. I could have told you that and you wouldn’t have to give me a grant. The researchers also found that those who were hitting about 15,000 steps (roughly seven miles) a day had normal BMIs and waistlines and no heightened risk of heart disease.

But 15,000 steps – 7 miles?

I wouldn’t label myself as “sedentary” but I certainly spend too much time in front of screens – computers and TV.  I don’t need a fancy tracker to tell me that.

The suggestion is to increase your steps by 1,000 then 2,000 a day for a week or two and continue until you get to 15,000.

Part of the problem for me is boredom. I have never been able to do the gym thing. Exercise on machines totally bores me. And when it comes to  steps… I love walking, but I like walking in the woods or at least in a park. I do that whenever I can, but I also have been walking around the workplace and around my neighborhood.

The suggested ways to increase your steps are always things like squeezing in a couple of 10 to 15-minute walks and walking everywhere within a one-mile radius instead of using the car. Of course, the walk to the coffee shop probably isn’t “cardio” unless you are really walking fast.

10, 000 steps still has multiple health benefits, especially if you make the 10K at a fast pace. You need to determine the number that’s right for you.

 

The nature of Americans sounds like a title that might these days refer to how we are changing as a people. But in this case, it is more literal – about our relationship with the outdoors.

Studies have shown that although the majority of Americans say that nature is one of their most enjoyable interests, they don’t spend much time outdoors. Why is there this gap?

A new study, “The Nature of Americans,” surveyed nearly 12,000 adults and children to try to determine why there is that gap. Are there barriers that keep people from going outside?

We know that even certain smells and sounds of nature can trigger happy memories. Being in nature brings people a sense of peace. This is true for children and adults.

Youngsters in the age 8-12 range said contact with nature “made them happier and healthier.” Their parents and researchers agree. Exposure to nature promoted their physical, psychological, and social well-being.

So then why do the majority of adults spend only five or less hours a week outside? Kids ages 8-12 are only a bit better averaging 6.5 hours a week outdoors. Add to that other studies that show those kids spend more than double that amount of time indoors on computers, televisions and electronic devices.

I feel like this has been “news” for about 50 years. We know it’s good for us but we don’t act upon that knowledge.

The study found a number of barriers. Some of this is pretty obvious. Where we live, work, and go to school can make it difficult for many people to have contact with the natural world. Not many Americans depend on the natural world for their livelihoods these day either. We don’t farm or work outside. We work in buildings.

In prioritizing our lives, nature has fallen down the list. Technologies and electronic media have moved up and they keep us indoors.

People who grow up without much contact with nature tend to be adults who are uncomfortable being outdoors alone. They probably don’t have many friends who want to accompany or encourage excursions into the natural world.

Children are kept indoors by a lack of available adult supervision. KIds, including my own, are rarely allowed to wander alone outdoors in a park or woods or even in their own neighborhood.

One thing the study found is that we need to change perceptions about nature. Too many adults perceive nature as something remote and inaccessible. Getting “out into nature” means a national park or wilderness – places that are often far from home. But neighborhood parks and small wooded areas and trails are also important. And making nature experiences social by doing things like group hikes connects us to nature and people.

Some of this nature wisdom is also a natural knowledge. The study shows that children perceive nearly every outdoor place as being part of nature, but that concept fades as they grow up. Watching ants climb over the ground, fishing at a park pond, climbing a jungle gym or a tree, watching chipmunks run in and out of their stone wall home or wading in a creek and rearranging the flow by moving rocks and making boats from leaves and sticks are all great ways of being in nature.

In the book Blue Mind, the author considers in a very long subtitle “The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.” Most of us are drawn to water. Even when it’s not summer, I feel the pull of the ocean. This connection to water is also in our nature.

I read Last Child in the Woods  years ago when my sons were children and I wanted to make nature part of their childhood. Along with other books by Richard Louv, such as Vitamin N and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, they can introduce you to the New Nature Movement that looks to the restorative powers of the natural world. It promises much: boosting mental acuity and creativity, health and wellness and even smarter and more sustainable businesses. It is an optimistic vision in an increasingly pessimistic world.

 

                   

Browsing the poetry shelves you will come across numerous editions of the prose and poetry of Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass is probably the best-selling title today. Thanks to technology, you can buy his complete works with that book, patriotic poems, prose, The Wound Dresser and even his letters in a Kindle Edition for a mere 99 cents.

One piece of his writing you won’t get in that digital archive is a curious collection he wrote in 1858 under the pseudonym Mose Velsor. Walt wrote an advice column in the New York Atlas newspaper for “manly men.” The topics included diet, exercise, and grooming.

I suppose it was a Men’s Journal or Esquire column for the time, though it seems out of character for the man I have mentally archived as “the good gray poet.”

That is until someone uncovered the 13-part newspaper series from 150 years ago.

It has been published in at least two versions I could find. Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body is the series.

Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training is 75 manly chunks of advice.

It was also published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Some of the columns headlines are pretty funny:  “The great american evil—indigestion” and “Could there be an entire nation of vigorous and beautiful men?”

 

So how well does 19th century Walt Whitman‘s advice hold up for 21st century men?

Let’s start the day like Walt…

The man rises at day-break, or soon after—if in winter, rather before. In most cases the best thing he can commence the day with is a rapid wash of the whole body in cold water, using a sponge, or the hands rubbing the water over the body—and then coarse towels to rub dry with; after which, the hair gloves, the flesh-brush, or any thing handy, may be used, for friction, and to put the skin in a red glow all over . . . as soon as the glow is attained, the window, unless the weather is very bad, should be opened, and the door also, so that the room may become filled with good fresh air—for the play of the respiratory organs will be increased by the performances just mentioned, and it is at such times that good air tells best.

How about some breakfast? Walt was much the carnivore.  “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else.”

Usually the breakfast, for a hearty man, might consist in a plate of fresh rare lean meat, without fat or gravy, a slice or chunk of bread, and, if desired, a cup of tea, which must be left till the last. If there be boiled potatoes, and one of them is desired, it may be permitted.

Let’s get groomed and dressed for the day.

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, etc., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.
Most of the usual fashionable boots and shoes, which neither favor comfort, nor health, nor the ease of walking, are to be discarded.”

Okay, we are ready to get on with the day!

Habituate yourself to the brisk walk in the fresh air—to the exercise of pulling the oar—and to the loud declamation upon the hills, or along the shore. Such are the means by which you can seize with treble grip upon all the puzzles and difficulties of your student life—whatever problems are presented to you in your books, or by your professors.

That walking gives me an appetite!

Lunch should consist of a good plate of fresh meat, (rare lean beef, broiled or roast, is best) with as few outside condiments as possible.

Maybe I should have saved that walk for after lunch. All this meat is making me a bit sleepy, but I must do some work!

A steady and agreeable occupation is one of the most potent adjuncts and favorers of health and long life. The idler, without object, without definite direction, is very apt to brood himself into some moral or physical fever—and one is about as bad as the other.

Well, I managed to work on a poem and a blog post and didn’t doze off (not completely anyway). The sun is low in the sky. It must be time for supper. I hope it is not meat again.

The supper, which must not be at a late hour, we would recommend always to be light—occasionally making this meal to consist of fruit, either fresh, during the middle and latter part of the summer—and of stewed fruit during the winter and spring.

It is easy for even the manly man to become a bit depressed after dinner. But don’t fear – Walt has advice for “the horrors” too.

If the victim of ‘the horrors’ could but pluck up energy enough to strip off all his clothes and gives his whole body a stinging rubdown with a flesh-brush till the skin becomes all red and aglow, he would be thoroughly cured of his depression, by this alone.

Is it 10 pm already?  Then it is time to go to sleep.

Ten o’clock at night ought to find a man in bed—for that will not afford him the time requisite for rest, if he rise betimes in the morning. The bedroom must not be small and close—that would go far toward spoiling all other observances and cares for health. It is important that the system should be clarified, through the inspiration and respiration, with a plentiful supply of good air, during the six, seven, or eight hours that are spent in sleep. During most of the year, the window must be kept partly open for this purpose.

Well, we quite a full day. Perhaps, we should do a bit of reading in bed to close out the day. We could read some poems.  But we also have another “new” Whitman book we might read. Zachary Turpin, a grad student at the University of Houston, is the person who rediscovered the columns on microfilm last year. He also discovered a long-lost novel of Whitman’s titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. It has one of those 19th century subtitles with a colon and a semi-colon. Wow.  “An Auto-Biography; A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters”

Back in 1852, Walt Whitman was a sweet 33 years old and not doing very well as a housebuilder in Brooklyn. He was writing. He was working on a free-verse book-length poem that would be published as Leaves of Grass and clinch his place in American literature.

He was also working on a novel. It would be published under a pseudonym and it did get serialized in a newspaper. And then it was forgotten, until Turpin rediscovered it after some clues led him to the Library of Congress. It seems that the LoC had the only surviving copy of Jack Engle. has lain waiting for generations.

The novel was also published in the WW Quarterly Review. Here’s how chapter one opens.

Punctually at half past 12, the noon-day sun shining flat on the pavement of Wall street, a youth with the pious name of Nathaniel, clapt upon his closely cropt head, a straw hat, for which he had that very morning given the sum of twenty-five cents, and announced his intention of going to his dinner.

“COVERT
Attorney at Law”

stared into the room (it was a down-town law-office) from the door which was opened wide and fastened back, for coolness; and the real Covert, at that moment, looked up from his cloth-covered table, in an inner apartment, whose carpet, book-cases, musty smell, big chair, with leather cushions, and the panels of only one window out of three being opened, and they but partially so, announced it as the sanctum of the sovereign master there. That gentleman’s garb marked him as one of the sect of Friends, or Quakers. He was a tallish man, considerably round-shouldered, with a pale, square, closely shaven face; and one who possessed any expertness as a physiognomist, could not mistake a certain sanctimonious satanic look out of the eyes. From some suspicion that he didn’t appear well in that part of his countenance, Mr. Covert had a practice of casting down his visual organs. On this occasion, however, they lighted on his errand-boy.
“Yes, go to thy dinner; both can go,” said he, “for I want to be alone.”
And Wigglesworth, the clerk, a tobacco-scented old man—he smoked and chewed incessantly—left his high stool in the corner where he had been slowly copying some document.

Ah, nothing like a 19th century novel to lull you to sleep. And I really need a good 8 hours in order to wake up early, take another cold shower, eat some breakfast meat and start another manly day!

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