March 11, 1918 Pandemic

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one.

In the world of virology, “Antigenic Drift” describes changes which happen slowly, the random mutation of virus DNA which takes place over months, or years. It’s why we get a new flu vaccine every year, even though there’s already some level of “herd immunity”.

“Antigenic Shift” occurs when two or more DNA strands combine, instantaneously forming a new virus sub-type. Like the dealer at some giant, cosmic poker table, this process may deal us a pair of twos. Occasionally, fate deals us aces & eights. The death hand.flu6

When the “Great War” broke out in 1914, US Armed Forces were small compared with the mobilized forces of European powers. The Selective Service Act, enacted May 18, 1917, authorized the federal government to raise an army for the United States’ entry into WWI. Two months after the American declaration of war against Imperial Germany, a mere 14,000 American soldiers had arrived “over there”. Eleven months later, that number stood at well over a million.

General “Black Jack” Pershing insisted that his forces be well trained before deployment. New recruits poured into training camps by the tens of thousands, while somewhere, some microscopic, chance recombination of surface proteins created a new virus, novel to almost every immune system in the world.

Flu pandemicOn the morning of March 11, 1918, most of the recruits at Fort Riley, Kansas, were turning out for breakfast. Private Albert Gitchell reported to the hospital, complaining of cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, more than 100 more had reported sick with similar symptoms.

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one. This flu would kick off a positive feedback loop between small proteins called cytokines, and white blood cells. This “cytokine storm” resulted in a death rate for 15-34 year olds 20 times higher in 1918, than in previous years. Perversely, it was their young and healthy immune systems that were most likely to kill them.

Physicians described the most viscous pneumonia they had ever seen, death often comingspanish_flu_death_chart-790-x-602.jpg_w=790&h=602 within hours of the first symptoms. There’s a story about four young, healthy women playing bridge well into the night. By morning, three were dead of influenza.

Over the next two years, this strain of flu infected one in every four people in the United States, killing an estimated 675,000 Americans. Eight million died in Spain alone, following an initial outbreak in May. Forever after, the pandemic would be known as the Spanish Flu.

In 1918, children skipped rope to a rhyme:

“I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
and in-flu-enza”.

In the trenches, the flu cut down combatants on every side. “Operation Michael”, the final, no holds barred German offensive that would determine the outcome of the war, launched from the Hindenburg line in March. Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote in August that “poor provisions, heavy losses, and the deepening influenza have deeply depressed the spirits of men in the 3rd Infantry Division”.

Some sources indicate that as many as half of the Americans killed in WWI, died of the flu.
The parades and parties following the cease fire in November threw gasoline on the fire. The end of war was a complete disaster from a public health standpoint. Millions more contracted the flu and thousands more died. President Wilson himself fell ill, while participating in 1919 treaty negotiations in Versailles.

1918-spanishfluAround the planet, the Spanish flu infected 500 million people. A third of the population of the entire world, at that time. Estimates run as high 50 to 100 million killed. For purposes of comparison, the “Black Death” of 1347-51 killed 20 million Europeans.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole, like they never happened. Today, the Spanish flu is all but overshadowed by the Great War, even though in the end, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 proved a far deadlier adversary, than the war itself.


January 22, 2000 A Hole in the Head

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill

It’s called “Trepanation”, possibly the oldest surgical procedure for which we have archaeological evidence. Trepanation involves drilling or scraping a hole into the human ancient-peruvian-trepanationhead, and seems to have begun sometime in the Neolithic, or “New Stone Age” period. One archaeological dig in France uncovered 120 skulls, 40 of which showed signs of trepanning. Another such skull was recovered from a 5th millennium BC dig in Azerbaijan.  A number of 2nd millennium BC specimens have been unearthed in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica; the area now occupied by the central Mexican highlands through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.

Bronze age skull

Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, described the procedure in detail in his treatise “On Injuries of the Head,” written sometime around 400BC. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamon expanded on the procedure some 500 years later. Archaeologists discovered 12½%, of all the skulls in pre-Christian era Magyar (Hungarian) graveyards, to have been trepanned.

The procedure has obvious applications in the treatment of head trauma, though it has been used to treat everything from seizures to migraines to mental disorders. During medieval times, the procedure was used to liberate demons from the heads of the possessed and to cure an assortment of ailments from meningitis to epilepsy.

trepan-posterTrepanation took on airs of pseudo-science, many would say “quackery”, when the Dutch librarian Hugo Bart Huges (Hughes) published “The Mechanism of Brainbloodvolume (‘BBV’)” in 1964. In it, Hughes contends that our brains drained of blood and cerebrospinal fluid when mankind began to walk upright, and that trepanation allows the blood to better flow in and out of the brain, causing a permanent “high”.

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill. He must have thought it proved the point, because he expanded on his theory with “Trepanation: A Cure for Psychosis”, as well as an autobiography, “The Book with the Hole”, published in 1972.

Peter Halvorson, a Hughes follower and director of the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), would disagree with that quackery comment. Halvorson trepanned himself with an electric drill in 1972. Today, he explains on his ITAG website ( that “The hypothesis here at ITAG has been that making an opening in the skull favorably alters movement of blood through the brain and improves brain functions which are more important than ever before in history to adapt to an ever more rapidly changing world”.with-a-drill

On January 22, 2000, Peter Halvorson and Williams Lyons helped drill a hole in a woman’s head for producers of the ABC News program “20/20.” This was in Beryl, Utah, and the television program which ensued, airing on February 10, resulted in criminal charges and arrest warrants for the two men. At the time, the Iron County DA was also considering charges against ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo for aiding in the crime. There is precedent in Utah for such a charge against a reporter. In 1999, KTVX reporter Mary Sawyers (allegedly) provoked a group of Carbon County High School students into using tobacco products for a story on youths and tobacco. Sawyers later stood trial for contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Utah’s 7th District Court of Appeals.

St. Louis neurologist Dr. William Landau wasn’t impressed with Hughes’ brainbloodvolume theory, explaining that “There is no scientific basis for this at all. It’s quackery.” Dr. Robert B. Daroff, Professor of Neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, was a little more to the point. “Horseshit,” he said. “Absolute, unequivocal bullshit”.

January 16, 2003 Columbia

231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000°F, when hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype, dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first spaceworthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

STS-1, the 1st Space shuttle mission, launched aboard Columbia on 4/12/81

STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, aboard the Russian Vostok 1. It was the first, and to-date only, manned maiden test flight of a new spacecraft system in the US space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with its external hydrogen fuel tank painted white. From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted to save weight.

There were initially four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia was joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”. A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.  A piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank eighty seconds after launch, striking Columbia’s left wing and leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.  Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, they were unable to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even if there had been major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry. Columbia’s 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds in space came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003, as it broke up in the outer atmosphere. 231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000°F, when hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing. The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

Debris and crew remains were found in over 2,000 locations across Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. The only survivors of the disaster was a canister full of worms, taken into space for study.

petr-ginz-drawingPayload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program. Colonel Ramon’s mother is an Auschwitz survivor, his grandfather and several family members killed in the Nazi death camps. In their memory, Ramon carried a copy of “Moon Landscape”, a drawing by 14 year old holocaust victim Petr Ginz, depicting what the boy thought earth might look like from the moon. Today, there are close to 84,000 pieces of Columbia and assorted debris, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. To the best of my knowledge, that drawing by a 14 year old boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

December 17, 1900 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

On December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian. That was considered too easy

In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus taught that the world was made of atoms.  Physically indestructible and always in motion, these atoms are infinite in number, differing only in shape and size.  Democritus taught that everything around us is the result of physical laws without reasoning or purpose.  He asked only “what earlier circumstances caused this event?” Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?”, while Plato disliked him so much he wanted to burn all his books.

Democritus also taught that there are an infinite number of worlds with inhabitants like us, though the prevailing view in antiquity was that the Earth was special, that we are alone.

In the time of Copernicus in the 1600s, it became widely believed that there is life on other planets.  Astronomers saw several features of the moon as evidence, if not of life, then at least that intelligence had at one time paid a visit.

Interest in Mars began to develop in the 1870s, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli described physical features of the red planet as “canali”.  The word means “channels” in Italian, but it was mis-translated as “canals”.  The English speaking world was off to the races.extraterrestrial-life

Speculation and folklore about intelligent life on Mars was soon replaced by the popular concept that canals had been excavated by intelligent Martians.

The idea was near universal by the turn of the century.  On this day, December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian.  That was considered too easy.

war-of-the-worlds-alien-tripod-attackingThe British author H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien invasion of earth by Martians fleeing from the desiccation of their planet.  The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, so realistic that many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.

The idea of life on Mars persisted until the 1960s, when close observations of the Martian surface were made possible by the Mariner series of spacecraft.

While much of “mainstream” science seems to steer clear of the subject, the University ofis-anybody-out-there California at Berkeley is running a “distributed computing effort” to identify extraterrestrial life, called SETI@home.   With an original objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, SETI@home currently operates on over 5.2 million computers.  With the introduction of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or “BOINC” (I didn’t make that up), SETI@home users can even compete with one another, to see who can process the maximum number of “work units”. website explains their mission:  “SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data”.

You, too can participate at, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3.  Please feel free to insert the “there-is-no-intelligent-life-here” joke of your choice HERE.