Let us count the ways

March 17, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

I reckon when your number is up, you should aim to go in a spectacular fashion. Nothing as mundane as carking it in your sleep. Far preferable to snuff it a dramatic moment that will go down in history. So if you spend your time wondering about how you’ll go, perhaps one of the following will happen to you (or all of us):

Nasa imageAn Australian astronomer is giving us dire warnings about a beautiful star that could send us all kaput. WR104 is an elegant rotating pinwheel system located in the Sagittarius constellation. Discovered 8 years ago, the system contains a very unstable star (mmm…think I work with a few of them!) named Wolf-Rayet, which is known to star-gazing types as a ticking time bomb. The hot dust and gas that is the swirling star is getting ready to explode and is really just down the road from Earth – a mere 8000 light years away. And should it explode, Earth is in the line of fire. A destructive gamma-ray radiation burst would come our way and zap. Earlier fossil extinctions are said to have been caused by gamma-ray bursts from supernovas having hissy fits. Dr Tuthill, the astronomer who first clamped eyes on WR104 says:

    I used to appreciate this spiral just for its beautiful form, but now I can’t help a twinge of feeling that it is uncannily like looking down a rifle barrel“. Okay, well when you gotta go, snuffing it along with all of humanity in a spectacular explosion and death rays caused by an adolescent star having a melt down could count as pretty memorable, not that we’d be around to remember!

    Should you be contemplating just how long you can hang around and avoid that final moment, you might want to consider leaving out the protein. Protein can apparently hasten your exit from this world, but the good news is protein can lead to more children. Eating less protein, not just fewer calories, is the (new) key to longevity. The balance of protein to carbohydrate in the diet is critical scientists are saying. In experiments with fruit flies, scientists are showing that eating less protein may extend life; but protein is needed for the reproductive system, so cutting down on protein will lead to having fewer children.

      Okay, so a bit of a dilemma here: eat less protein, maybe delay the inevitable but be pretty lonely when you have no kids to look after you in your dotage; or scoff a lot of protein and have kids, but maybe not live long enough to have them look after you in your dotage.

      But then we may not even have to worry about protein or death stars, because something else may be capable of snuffing us out in one blaze of glory. The plague. It’s here again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the plague as ‘re-emerging’. Did you know that WHO records a few thousand cases of the plague each year around the world? Scared the bejesus out of me when I read that! Since the early 1990s, the plague has returned to places like Mozambique (gulp: I’ve been there), India, Zambia (been there too), Algeria and parts of China. In the 1970s, the plague mostly existed in Asia; but now it’s zeroing in on Africa where more than 90% of cases are reported.

      You probably were taught in Modern History that the worst manifestation of the plague happened during the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th Century. And you probably found out that this creature and its fleas was to blame – the rodent:

          Mind you, the Medieval plague rodent probably didn’t look as cute as this fellow because it was busy living in the garbage of medieval European towns. But scientists are now beginning to understand the dynamics of plague infection. It’s not just the Yersinia pestis bacteria, which animal populations can carry, that is the problem. The spread of the bacteria is dependent on interactions between rodents AND contact between humans and wildlife. Rodents are now being displaced by deforestation and sprawling human populations are now reaching areas where black rats live.And global warming could accelerate the whole thing. Following a 50 year study, scientists from the former Soviet Union noted that human plague in Kazakhstan occurs only when the local gerbil population reaches a certain threshold in winter. Warmer winters mean more gerbils. A warmer world could mean the unleashing of this virulent pathogen. And given the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, don’t count on drugs to save us from a rerun of the 14th Century.

          So…let me count the ways: a Death Star, too much protein, the plague, terrorists, ebola, bird flu, George Bush….

          Sources: University of Sydney; University of Sydney News; Time.


            Entry filed under: Animals, Curiousity, Galaxies, Science.

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