Jan. 8, 2013

Myth Dispelled

by Adam Possner

The flu vaccine cannot
give you the flu, I tell him.
It's dead virus, there's
nothing alive about it.
It can't make you sick.
That's a myth.
But if we bury it in
the grassy knoll
of your shoulder,
an inch under the stratum
corneum, as sanctioned by
your signature
in a white-coated ceremony
presided over by
my medical assistant
and then mark the grave
with a temporary
non-stick headstone,
the trivalent spirit
of that vaccine
has a 70 to 90 percent
chance of warding off
the Evil One,
and that's the God's
honest truth.

"Myth Dispelled" by Adam Possner, MD /JAMA. December 5,2012 Vol. 308 (21):2178. "Copyright © 2012 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.

It's the birthday of Elvis Presley, born in Tupelo, Mississippi (1935). He learned to play the guitar when he was 12 but never really learned to read music. He just knew how to mimic what he heard. He loved all kinds of music, and his friends said that he could reproduce perfectly almost anything he heard on the radio.

He had no clear ambition to become a professional musician. After high school, he got a job as a truck driver for the Crown Electric Company and he began studying to become an electrician. His career as a recording artist only came about because of his love for his mother.

At the time, the Sun Record Company had a special recording studio where anyone could come in and pay a small fee to record personal records for themselves. In the summer of 1953, Elvis scraped together $4 to record two songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," as a present for his mother. When the woman at the front desk asked him what kind of a singer he was, he said, "I sing all kinds." She asked him whom he sounded like, and he said, "I don't sound like nobody."

The recording engineer that day liked Elvis's voice and somehow those recordings made their way into the hands of producer Sam Phillips who specialized in recording "hillbilly music." Phillips called Elvis back into the studio to see if he might have some real talent. Elvis sang a few slow ballads, which were his favorite songs to sing, and Sam Phillips wasn't too impressed. And then, in between takes, Elvis and the other musicians started fooling around and singing a blues tune called "That's All Right, Mama." Sam Phillips asked them to start over from the beginning and recorded the song. He then rushed the record to the biggest DJ in Memphis.

When Elvis found out that the song, which he considered a joke, would be on the radio, he was so embarrassed that he hid in a local movie theater until his parents made him come home. That night the DJ in Memphis played Elvis's new song on the radio for the first time, and he received 47 phone calls and 17 telegrams asking to play the song again. In the following week, Memphis stores sold some 6,000 copies of the record. A few weeks later, Elvis sang the song at a local music show at an outdoor park. He was extremely nervous while singing the song and started shaking his leg in rhythm to the music. The girls in the audience went crazy.

Elvis went on to record 149 songs that made the top 100 in the Billboard's pop charts, including "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

He said: "Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine. Ain't nowhere else in the world where you can go from driving a truck to a Cadillac overnight."

Today is the birthday of the writer, pacifist, and educator Emily Greene Balch (books by this author), born in Jamaica Plain, Boston (1867). She was among the first graduating class of Bryn Mawr College in 1889, where she studied sociology and economics. After graduation, she did field work for Jacob Riis, whose landmark How the Other Half Lives (1890) helped bring about major reforms in tenement housing.

In 1913, Balch became a full professor at Wellesley College, where she was popular with her students, encouraging them to combine hands-on research with book study. A campaigner for the minimum wage, and against child labor, she was often late to class from attending demonstrations. She was finally fired by the trustees five years later for her public opposition to World War I. Years later, what she called Hitler's "religion of violence" caused her to question her stance on absolute pacifism.

In the mid-1920s, Balch traveled to Haiti, which was then under the control of the U.S. military. She studied living conditions, and her resulting book, Occupied Haiti (1926), was instrumental in the withdrawal of federal troops. Balch was a big believer in the benefits of travel and was excited by the potential of aviation to bring people together. She said: "Deeply and happily, I consider myself a citizen of the world. I am at home wherever there are people." She was an academic by trade, but deeply loved the arts. An avid painter, she also published a book of poems, The Miracle of Living (1941). Along with her longtime friend, Jane Addams, she cofounded The Women's International League of Peace and Freedom, and in 1946, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her years of service.

Balch said: "Human nature seems to me like the Alps. The depths are profound, black as night, and terrifying, but the heights are equally real, uplifted in the sunshine."

It's the 71st birthday of physicist Stephen Hawking (books by this author), born in Oxford, England (1942). He likes to point out that he was born 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo. As a child, he used to make fireworks and take apart television and radio sets to build computers, before computers had really been invented. He also had handwriting that was so bad, it was unreadable, and a stutter that he inherited from his father.

He went to Oxford University, but never attended lectures. He was bored with most of his classes, because they seemed too easy, and it was only after an oral exam that his professors realized how smart he was. He went on to get a Ph.D., and he was just starting to find his courses interesting when he was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that slowly destroys a person's ability to move any part of their body, while leaving the brain itself unharmed. His doctors expected him to live only two to three years more.

At first Hawking was utterly depressed, and considered giving up on everything. But then his condition seemed to stabilize, and he got engaged to one of his classmates. He said: "[I realized that] if we were to get married, I had to get a job. And to get a job, I had to finish my Ph.D. I started working hard for the first time in my life. To my surprise, I found I liked it."

Hawking decided to focus his studies on the mysterious astronomical objects known as black holes, and he developed new theories about how they function and what role they may have played in the origin of the universe.

Hawking has since spent his life pursuing what is called a Grand Unified Theory, or a Theory of Everything. He has said that he is looking for answers to cosmological questions like, "How did the universe begin? Why is the universe the way it is? How will it end?"

In 1988, Hawking decided to sum up all the research on physics and astronomy in a book for nonscientists called A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988). His publishers told him that in order for the book to be successful, he had to avoid math altogether. They estimated that he would reduce his readership by 50 percent for every mathematical equation he included. So he included only one: E=MC2. A Brief History of Time went on to sell almost 10 million copies. His latest book, The Grand Design, was published in 2010, and he's planning to make a trip to space as one of Richard Branson's "space tourists."

Asked in a recent interview what he thinks about most in a day, Hawking responded: "Women. They are a complete mystery."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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