It’s been a big week in space, so to speak.
An American astronaut was found to have altered his genes through space travel, the science and space savvy the world over celebrated the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet and a luminary scientist left us for worlds unknown.
Not that earthbound news did not keep headline readers and writers busy.
Stories of disasters such as the bridge collapse in Florida, protests of elections in Russia, warfare in Syria, firings in Washington, D.C., student-led walkouts focused on gun violence and school shootings, misuse of social media data and many other attention grabbing items kept news watchers and readers on high alert.
But sometimes it is worthwhile to look to the stars to gain perspective.
In a March 15 piece on the National Public Radio program “All Things Considered,” commentators discussed the ramifications of the discovery of changes to the DNA of Scott Kelly, the American astronaut who spent 340 days in space. The mission set a record for time spent in space and shed light on the impact of such long periods on the human body, The changes to Kelly were particularly exciting because his DNA could be compared to the DNA of Mark Kelly, his identical twin who is also an astronaut.
Scientists found changes in Scott Kelly’s immune system attributed to the stress of space flight, changes in DNA repair likely due to the body’s response to radiation in space and differences in bone and muscle formation, according to Christopher Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Mason studied the Kelly brothers through skin, blood, saliva and other scientific samples since Scott Kelly’s return to Earth, specifically Kazakhstan, in March 2016.
Mason sees the utility of such data in the prospect of trips by humans to Mars. Such travel would take about a year one way.
One day prior to the news about the comparisons of the Kelly brother’s genes was released, the Greek letter and mathematical constant pi was celebrated by many with “Pi Day,” the day marking the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. According to the website piday.org, Pi has been calculated to “over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point” and “as an irrational and transcendental number, it will continue infinitely without repetition or pattern.” Pi is a constant meaning it is the same for all circles – 3.14159 etc. Google marked the 30th anniversary of Pi Day with a themed doodle and short film featuring pastry chef Dominique Ansel creating his favorite version of an apple pie, Salted Caramel Apple Pie. Ansel decorated his pie with a series of concentric rings. Pi Day revelers are encouraged to celebrate Pi Day by enjoying a slice of their favorite pie.
March 14 also was a day of loss for science when Prof. Stephen Hawking, 76, celebrated theoretical physicist, died.
Hawking, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease, died at his home in Cambridge, England. He was a hero to many including scientists in his field, those who also had Lou Gehrig’s disease and others.
Hawking made the cosmos and scientific discussion of space accessible not only through his writing of books and articles but in his lectures and through his presence in popular culture. Actor Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking in the movie “The Theory of Everything” earned Redmayne an Academy Award Oscar among other accolades. Hawking appeared on television beyond the more serious realms of space documentaries in such television sitcoms as “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
Diagnosed with ALS in 1963 when he was 21 and given the grim prediction of dying within two years, Hawking would go on to twice marry, be a father and grandfather, write extensively about matters of space, particularly black holes and fly in zero gravity among many achievements.
Following his death, figures such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, President Barack Obama, pop star Katie Perry, celebrity adventurer Richard Branson, actors Redmayne, William Shatner and the cast of The Big Bang Theory and astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mark Kelly grieved and celebrated Hawking in public postings on social media.
When the din of immediacy and the racket of earthbound events can overwhelm, it pays, sometimes, to ponder the wondrous such as the impact of travel into the infinite space beyond Earth, a mathematical value calculated to over a trillion digits and beyond and a life that touched millions from the seemingly confined berth of a wheelchair.
East Penn Press