Unmasking the Truth

From left to right, a full hazmat suit with HEPA-filtered respirator; a simple surgical mask used in a stationary, sterile OR; a simple surgical mask used in public, and an N95 particle filter mask used in construction.

As the COVID-19 pandemic of February and March 2020 unfolded like the slow-motion train wreck that it was and still is, each week brought a new, unexpected scene. For several weeks, we shopped for our groceries as we always had, but walked past shelves denuded of toilet paper, Clorox wipes and Purell. Politicians from the left urged us on TV to walk around in Chinese communities unprotected during their New Year celebration. As happened frequently to progressives, they dropped the ball with respect to pandemic control because they thought inclusiveness or racial justice were more important objectives than people getting sick and dying.

Nancy Pelosi encouraging people to visit Chinatown in San Francisco.

Governor Whitmer locking down Michigan and requiring face masks.

The Surgeon General of the United States went on Fox News and declared that face masks do not work https://www.foxnews.com/media/surgeon-general-explains-masks-public-coronavirus.

A few weeks later politicians were ordering the public to lock ourselves down in our homes and many governors ordered their constituents to wear masks in public. Again, they did so with such casual disregard for the economic consequences of that action it became difficult to understand if they had any priority than to issue orders and see that they were obeyed. That week, we began walking past the same supermarket shelves masked up like we were all planning to rob the store, as toilet paper made its return and then meat disappeared. Mask advocates invoked “the science” as if there was something obvious in the peer reviewed literature that formed the basis of this policy. There isn’t. There have been hundreds of studies of the patient risks during masked or unmasked medical procedures. There are no studies whatsoever as to the health outcomes of ordinary citizens wearing surgical masks as protective devices in a pandemic.

The use of the word “Mask” is an over simplification, because this controversy is really about three different things, each of them being separately defined and regulated as medical devices. A surgical mask is a disposable fabric filter designed to provide a protective barrier preventing the breath aerosols and droplets of the wearer from falling into a sterile surgical field. An N95 mask is a polymer enhanced version of the surgical mask that has been tested to retain 95% of particles of 0.3 microns diameter or more, and is more commonly called a dust mask, because they have found widespread use in the farming and construction industry to protect the wearer not from pathogens, but from inhalation of dusts, spores, and silica particles. The third device is a respirator, or a “rebreather” and this is a fully contained breathing system that allows the user to be enclosed in an impermeable suit with a mechanically driven HEPA filter cleaning all airborne particles and infectious agents from the breathable airstream. We currently have a controversial situation because health authorities have been requiring the population to employ device one, the surgical mask, as if it were a full respirator.

1. Germs collect far from the user’s face in the remote filter.; 2. Respiratory droplets and pathogens of the medical professional collect on the inside of the mask; 3. A variety of environmental pathogens, allergens and particulate pollutants collect on the front of the mask, in addition to the users own pathogens collecting on the inside.

It’s informative to review the history of the first known COVID-19 patient identified in the United States, a 35 year old man who traveled directly from Wuhan, China in mid-January and presented in an emergency room in Washington on January 19, 2020. Quoting from the Bloomberg news article about his diagnosis, 

“The test came back positive that afternoon, Jan. 20, the first confirmed case in the U.S. By 11:00 p.m., the patient was in a plastic-enclosed isolation gurney on his way to a bio-containment ward at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, a two-bed unit developed for the Ebola virus. As his condition worsened, then improved over the next several days, staff wore protective garb that included helmets and face masks. Few even entered the room; a robot equipped with a stethoscope took vitals and had a video screen for doctors to talk to him from afar.”

It is clear from this account the medical staff in Everett understood that if they were to protect themselves from respiratory particles coming from a COVID-19 patient, full-containment respiratory self-breathing suits were required. They had them and they wore them. A simple surgical mask was not going to cut it. American health authorities fully understood that respirators were critical to protect medical staff. But the few in stock around the nation were simply for theater, something cool to flash for CNN during their coverage of Ebola outbreaks. They were not even a miniscule fraction of the number required to manage a pandemic. So when this one arrived, medical workers were forced to rely on the N95 and procedure masks, already well established to be inadequate for their protection. History would bear witness to this inadequacy, as more than 100 Italian doctors not only contracted COVID-19 but also died of it. There are only 336,000 doctors in all of Italy, so using a case fatality rate of 1%, fully 10,000 physicians or 3% of all Italian doctors became infected because inadequate masks were included as PPE. 

By requiring persons in states or countries under lockdown to wear surgical masks in public, health authorities have pushed the device beyond its design specifications. When used for hours by a wearer traversing crowded public spaces, the mask becomes akin to a collection device for sampling all available environmental pathogens. Respiratory droplets from dozens of people containing a variety of bacterial and viral pathogens are collected and retained a few mm from the lips and nose of the wearer, and maintained in a moist environment that enhances pathogen survival. Remember, a surgical mask is designed for the wearer to stand virtually immobile in an operating room environment, to wear the mask for a few hours at most, and to dispose of it antiseptically as if it were highly contagious. Current lockdown policies require users to wear this device while they traverse public spaces, intersecting the exhaled breath paths of numerous strangers. Because of the scarcity of masks, most of the general public do not dispose of their masks regularly or at all, but wear them repeatedly. A review of laboratory acquired infections over the past eighty years has shown that a self-contained rebreathing device is necessary to prevent the wearer from inhaling aerosolized live pathogens. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2493080/ and https://cmr.asm.org/content/cmr/8/3/389.full.pdf. The extreme cost, lack of availability, and cumbersome nature of this equipment that would have been necessary and sufficient to protect both emergency hospital workers and the general public from infection with SARS-CoV-2 is what led to the politically establishment of surgical mask misuse.

This situation has let to massively conflicting information about the use and effectiveness of surgical masks in public. Comments seen on Twitter include, “If masks work, then why don’t they just give all the prisoners masks instead of letting them out of jail? If masks work, then why do we have to stand 6 feet apart? If standing 6 feet apart works, then why do we need to wear masks?” Social media contributed further confusion as well by the creation of outright falsehoods masquerading, again, as science. Here’s one example:

There is no scientific study to document this. A designed study of this type is unethical. Accidental exposures of this type can be studied.  A study of the COVID-19 seroprevalence in NYC health care workers suggests that the true contagion probability is 1 or 2% even after repeated exposures. Only 7% of NYC health care workers had seroconverted or caught the illness even after weeks of repeated, daily exposures of this type. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisettevoytko/2020/05/07/fewer-ny-healthcare-workers-are-being-infected-with-covid-19-compared-to-public-cuomo-says/#193104176619

There is no scientific study to document this. Exposing any healthy subject to a COVID-19 positive patient, whether masked or not, is unethical. Instances where a completely unprotected health worker was exposed to a masked COVID-19 patient would be too rare to be meaningful.

There is no scientific study to document this. It is possible that in a jurisdiction where all EMTs apply PPE to suspected COVID-19 patients before delivering them to PPE-protected health service providers in hospitals, and those providers never are exposed to any other source of the virus, one could derive a statistic. The scenario is improbable.

And finally, there is the homemade cloth version of a surgical mask. Many masks are homemade cotton cloth improvisations that filter droplets less well than polymer fiber masks, and retain more moisture. The inferiority of cloth masks to standard medical masks has been documented. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4420971/ Since there is clear scientific evidence that cloth masks have a negative impact on the spread of disease and the health of the user, public health authorities ought to be forbidding their use. Instead, the industriousness and creativity of cloth mask wearers are extolled, and they are made out to be heroes of the revolution. 

At this point in the pandemic, the face mask has transcended it’s potential medical function and has become a simple political statement. 99.99% of mask wearers are healthy. The only impact the mask can have on their health is to catch and sequester a pathogen near their mucous membranes. Yet the mask is now a political symbol of subservience to authority and of polite contrition in the face of incomprehensible mandates by those paid to provide guidance. Masks are going to be with us for a long time. Upon reflection, we should have known that the face mask was doomed to become another piece of political theater. (See also, the TSA and political theater masquerading in place of substantive policy. https://kirkmaxey.com/2014/11/07/the-black-curtain-of-death-theatre-in-lieu-of-substance/ ) They have no cost to politicians, require no taxes or employees, and give a dramatic visual impression that something is being done. No amount of good science will be able to dislodge them now.

Fortunately, it is now summer where I live, and whenever I’m not wearing my mask, I can flip it up on the dashboard where the temperature is often 140 degrees fahrenheit under direct sunlight. Studies have shown that corona viruses and almost all respiratory viruses cannot survive more than a few minutes under these conditions. 

               

 

There will never be an actual end to this pandemic, unless you define that as some time in the future when SARS-CoV-2 does not kill any substantial fraction of the people catching a seasonal respiratory virus. Considering the many unusual cardiovascular and immune aspects of corona virus, I think that day will be a long time coming. In the words of T.S. Eliot, it will die not with a bang but with a whimper. Even with an effective vaccine, life will not be without risk. It never has been. At some point, you just have to take that diaper off your face and get back to living.

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Science Guy

Kirk_Science Guy

The Eastern Market district of Detroit is on the wrong side of the freeway. The Fox Theatre, the big new stadium where the Tigers play – they’re over on the other side. Here in the Market, each block is an uncertain and dangerous piece of terrain. Coming around a corner or under a bridge, you are likely to be accosted by a strange and bedraggled person – what we call the homeless. Yes, that can happen on any big city street – but usually you are in the company of the crowd. Here you are alone with the outcasts. They often confront you, ask unusual questions, and make demands. To negotiate these streets is to be a wanderer in a children’s fairy tale. You meet the trolls, beggars and princes in disguise, and must always be thinking. If you persevere and show courage and imagination, you may find your reward. The stench of excrement, from both people and other things, is common. It mingles with the waste vapors of the cars on I-75. Supposedly, that stuff is making the world warm up, but with the temperature around 5 degrees on this January day, I think maybe it’s not true. Or, if it’s true, I wish it would hurry up.

I am almost to the door of the slaughterhouse, when my sleeve is suddenly grabbed by a person that I did not see. He was behind a telephone pole. He eyes the bright white Styrofoam box that I’m carrying, and demands to have what’s in it. It’s a test. I think quickly, and decide that I should give in to his demand. I open the box, and offer it to him. I can hear his hand scrabbling around among the contents – then he draws a piece out. He stares at it for a second – then he screams. He lets go of my arm, and I slip in the door. He must have thought I had food or something. It was dry ice.

At first, I can’t see anything – so stark is the contrast between the dim interior and the daylight outside. In my mind, I keep seeing the startled, wide-open mouth of the nameless creature who confronted me. There were only three teeth – two on the bottom and one on the top. But the tongue was surprisingly healthy and pink. Not as anemic as his station in life might have predicted. Just around the corner, I can see the place I’ve been seeking. It is an Islamic slaughter house, where a bearded man with a knife dispatches the animals one after another, in accordance with the Koran, the USDA, and also the FDA, simultaneously. Today, we’re killing sheep.

The floor is wet and stained pink with blood, although they stop to spray it down with the hose when the inspector makes them. Little bits of pale and bleached flesh catch in the cracks and pockets of the rough concrete where he stands with his arms folded across his chest. Big, black, smiling as he jokes with the men, he points to the debris at his feet when it gets too thick to suit him. Someone quickly rinses it away. He didn’t like me when I first came in, cold from the winter air and not certain where I was. He wants to know what’s in the box. It’s another test, but this time I think I should respond with my best version of the truth. I tell him about the dry ice in my box, the vesicular glands, and where they are in the sheep. “Like it was where your prostate would be?” “That’s right,” I answer, mumbling a few words about our research.

Semen is one of those things that you can’t mix up until right before you plan to use it. It’s like the epoxy cement at the hardware store that comes in two separate tubes. Neither one is any good as a glue unless you mix them into each other with a small stick. Then within minutes, they harden up like a rock. In order to make semen, you have to mix a stream of fluid from the vesicular glands of the prostate with another one that comes from the epidydimus. (That’s a sperm storage bag that hangs on the side of each testicle like a little French beret.) Why you have to mix semen just before use is not as well understood as epoxy cement. That’s one reason why I’m here.

I study COX. No, not penises – COX stands for cyclooxygenase – an enzyme. COX is an enzyme apparently up to no good. It makes people have headaches, menstrual cramps, and achy joints. COX comes in two varieties – the regular blue jeans version, COX-1, and one for special occasions, called COX-2. No one had really heard much about it until Merck made an inhibitor for COX-2, and named it Vioxx. People soon started sueing Merck, claiming that Vioxx caused them to have heart attacks. I used to be able to send my colleagues e-mails and use the letters COX anywhere I wanted to. Now that makes spam filters throw the e-mails in the trash, and no one ever gets them. I used to be able to search for COX on Google and get reasonable information – now I get solicited by attorneys and linked to nasty web sites. There is no better place to get COX than sheep seminal vesicles – their prostate glands. They’re loaded with it. That may in some way be related to the fact that semen is stored in separate compartments. If I’m lucky, today I’ll get enough of them to study that.

Prostate hits home with our representative from the government; he grabs his pants. “Had a friend had to have his taken out – got to wear diapers now. That why you want ’em? For research?” A thread of fear catches in his throat – you can see it in his eyes. This man does not want to wear diapers, all the fault of some odd lump of a gland that goes bad deep inside his bowels. “Right,” I answer, knowing it’s not exactly right but close enough for partial credit. Smoky mist curls out from under the lid by my wrist. Dry ice. Coldest thing anyone here has ever heard of. One hundred ninety degrees below zero. He leaves me a place to stand where I won’t get hit by the hose. I’m starting to get some respect.

The bearded guy – I guess he’s the Imam – does his little thing with some muttering, and another sheep goes down. There’s a thick, musty vapor in the air, like wet hay starting to mold. It’s the blood. Sheep blood spills out onto the cement, warm and steaming. The air is wet, heavy, full of pungent odors that course through sheep veins. Molecules that have been making the quiet commute from kidney to liver to lung and back suddenly find themselves dumped without ceremony onto the floor. (Well, actually there was a little bit of a ceremony – I’m just not sure either the sheep or myself understood it.) Derailed from their routes, metabolites and pheromones are released to float free around my feet, into my clothing. The knives flash silver, pressing gently into the sheep as the ribbons of flesh open up and the hide peels away. The belly parts smoothly down the center and out falls a huge and hideous snake; a python disguised as a digestive system, all neatly coiled into loops and ripples of gray-green, bulging here and tapering there into fine lengths of sausage. The surface shines like a polished rock. It is deftly cut free and scooped with two hands into the tray before me, slithering to a stop. And not a drop of blood on it. The seminal vesicles look like peach pits, the color of raw shrimp, tucked in behind the limp sac of a bladder. It takes a few minutes to carefully cut them free, pry them up out of the fat while severing each little thread of tissue holding them in place. Once in the dry ice they blanch white, freezing in an instant. They roll around in the box like marbles. The sheep goes on down the line, its body disintegrating into pieces. The bigger ones fall into trays and hang from the ceiling on hooks. But the scent of life breaks free in a swarm of potent little vectors that waft up toward the ceiling.

In a few hours the sheep are all gone and my box is half full. The inspector is munching a donut, taking care not to let any crumbs fall onto the floor and contaminate it. No, the floor is the place for entrails, and rumpled wooly hides caked with dried sheep dung – woe to anyone who might drop a couple of donut sprinkles down there. He’s telling me about his education now, and how he rose up from the ranks of janitors and night watchmen to become a federal inspector for the U.S.D.A. He has even confided some tips on how I might be able to follow his example and become an inspector too. I think he must like me, perhaps because I’m not afraid of dead sheep. Or perhaps it’s because he hopes that one day I may help mediate a dispute that he might have with his prostate gland. To be honest, I like him too. It’s because he let me take the glands without being a pain in the ass about it. I nod to him and step out through the heavy metal door.

A cloud of steam exits along with me, boiling into vapor as it strikes the cold air. Thin January sunlight is shining brightly into my eyes. Walls of faded and crumbling red brick line the street. The thick, sweet aroma from inside fades quickly. In its place are the cold, dead smells of a city in winter. There is exhaust in the wind, and garbage on the sidewalk. My hands are warm, the skin soft and greasy from the sheep. Although I washed them, they seem to have absorbed something that doesn’t wash away. I clutch the box under one arm, and turn to make my way back to where I parked my truck. A half inch of snow was dumped here in the night by a storm that now races away across lake Ontario. The cold winter wind is playing with the snow like an idle child, pushing it into fine white lines where there are cracks and making white triangular piles behind the tires and the phone poles. My friend with the frostbitten fingers is nowhere in sight. The same mysterious forces that pushed us together for an instant at the slaughterhouse door have now pulled us apart. Once I am safely back inside my pickup, I can begin to feel badly. I feel badly for this city, which seems stricken by some disease or evil spell that mires it down in perpetual ruin. And about him, his life, and how the guy with the box tricked him. And about the sheep, who went so quietly, but left the essence of their lives stamped into my skin. It only lasts a moment, as I nudge aside the box lid and peek at the frozen tissue. There is a new compound, KMN10404, back at the lab. It is an elegant, tiny little construct, with an oxygen, a nitrogen, and then three carbon atoms tied together into a neat little pentagon. It’s an isoxazole…maybe it will be christened Isoxx. I already know it’s a COX inhibitor, and at least 1000 times more potent than Motrin. I won’t know if it’s like Vioxx or not until I get back and grind up my little frozen marbles. Already I’m speeding down I-75 and out of Detroit. I know my place in the world, and it is not as the fixer of dead cities or the rescuer of the homeless. I am just a science guy.

70210

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I Know This Man

My son would probably not have reached his normal adult height if it had not been for the barbacoa burritos at Chella’s Restaurant on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor. I was there with him a lot. Several nights a week. People were friendly there – we were friendly back. I knew the owner, who was often behind the counter. Then one night last week, he showed up on TV.  And I thought to myself, “I know this man.”

Kirk Maxey and Adrian Iraola

Kirk Maxey and Adrian Iraola

His name is Adrian Iraola. He was standing in the middle of my big living room TV screen, and David Muir was saying “Watch as this meeting about inclusion and diversity takes a devastating turn…”

For me, something just snapped when I saw this man being hounded as if he had no right to stand up and make critical comments about the community of Saline Michigan BECAUSE HE CAME HERE FROM MEXICO!! We all came here from somewhere. There are no Americans who were always here from the beginning. The so called indigenous came more than 10,000 years ago by foot and by small boat, and spread across the land. Europeans came in trickles 400 years ago by boat, soon coming in larger numbers and bringing African slaves. Famines hit Ireland and Denmark, and the destitute came then in massive waves in the 1800s. Later influxes came mainly by air, as Hungarians, Estonians, Czechs, and Poles fled revolution and repression in their homelands. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought new surges of Russians and Ukrainians followed by Serbs and Romanians in the aftermath of the wars in the Balkans. These people melded into the mix of English, Irish, Italian, German, Swedish, and Danish who came before them, and they ARE AMERICA.

Adam Uzieblo and Kirk Maxey

Adam and Kirk

Adam Uzieblo was born in Warsaw and has a PhD in organic chemistry. When he came to America in 1981, he was forced to leave his wife and small son behind. He was hired as a synthetic chemist at Cayman Chemical in 1989, and has prepared thousands of complex prostaglandins and biochemicals over his decades long career. His family joined him five years later, and his son is now a skilled vascular surgeon practicing in the Detroit area. Adam is a member of the Board of Directors of Cayman Chemical. #Iknowthisman.

There is a lot to find disgusting about the Trump administration, but nothing compares to their racist, xenophobic paranoia regarding immigrants. These people ARE US – they are the new building blocks of America, fitting neatly into the spaces where those of us with a few or even many generations on US soil already live. The Gestapo wannabes of ICE and the HSA routinely humiliate and degrade anyone foreign as they travel into and out of the US. They abuse US citizens and green card holders based on crude racist stereotypes of skin color, language and ethnicity. It is a complete abandonment of our own human decency. I’m sick to goddamn death of it, and I’m not going to sit still for it a second longer.

Zahra Assar, Kirk Maxey, and Andrei Kornilov

Zahra, Kirk, and Andrei

Zahra Assar was born in Tehran, Iran in 1989, the same year that Adam came to work at Cayman. She has a BS in Chemistry from Sharif University of Technology and a PhD from Michigan State. She came to America in 2012 and joined Cayman in 2017 as a structural biologist while she was still defending her thesis. #Iknowthiswoman. Andrei Kornilov was born in Kiev, Ukraine and earned his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Kiev. He came to America in 1996, and is my coauthor on my most recent publication  #Iknowthisman

Toni and Kirk

Toni and Kirk

This is Toni, a Cherokee woman who manages the Twin Peaks mine near Mount Ida, Arkansas. We share a love of nature, quartz crystals and geology. Our relatives from many generations ago were from the southeastern US, moved westward to Oklahoma and then went their separate ways. #Iknowthiswoman

Cathy and Kirk

Cathy and Kirk

Cathy Miller was born in Taiwan and moved to America when she was 5. She graduated with a degree in Chemistry from the University of Michigan and joined Cayman Chemical in 1994. She has held positions in several departments, and is now part of the ISO-qualified forensics department that handles drugs of abuse. #Iknowthiswoman

In America, we are all immigrants. The only distinction is that some of us came recently and have more obvious traces of our past, like an accent or some unusual holidays or traditions of dress. Those of us who have been here longer need to be as welcoming, respectful, and appreciative of recent immigrants as possible, because they are literally the lifeblood of our country. They truly understand and appreciate freedom and liberty, some after having been deprived of their basic human rights elsewhere. Somewhere within the twisted guts of this foul administration is a perverted goon who thinks up new ways every day to mistreat decent, honest people crossing our borders. He’s the asshole who dreamed up snatching kids away from their parents and locking them in cages. We need to smoke that son of a bitch out and LOCK HIM UP!!!

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17 Questions About Glyphosate

It’s important that as lawyers and special interests create false chemophobic “facts” someone should maintain a good website where those are noted and the actual scientific truth of the matter be stated as clearly and bluntly as possible. No Virginia, glyphosate does not cause cancer.

Thoughtscapism

Many worry about pesticides for health or environmental reasons, and the most common target of general concern is undoubtedly glyphosate, the active ingredient in the famous weedkiller RoundUp. I find that the best thing to do when something worries me, is to
1find out more about it.  I’ve delved into the details behind the 17 most common concerns I’ve encountered. Questions 1-11 are mainly about health, whereas 12-16 focus on environmental aspects, and lastly, 17 delves into the question of the integrity of research. I will do my best to present useful evidence-based resources on all the following topics. If you would like to listen to a summary of this series you can head on over to my guest appearance on the podcast Talking biotech with Kevin Folta – I was very honoured for the opportunity to join his great series.

After receiving valuable feedback from my readers, I decided to break these questions into blog posts of their…

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Putin’s Poisons

Putin Cobra Blog Image Kremlin 2018DECVladimir Putin is the current totalitarian ruler of Russia, which isn’t in itself an historically surprising circumstance. From the Tsars to the Bolsheviks and on through the present, a single despotic person has generally ruled over Russia, and frequently over a large part of the contiguous territories of Europe and Asia. Unlike Stalin, who was an imposing physical person and who murdered wantonly and in massive numbers, Putin is a small, pale, reptilian person who rules and murders much more after the fashion of a snake. There is a certain morbid fascination in watching a current head of state selecting and deploying a range of improbable toxins against a fairly random list of perceived traitors, enemies, journalists and spies. Poisoning is only an attractive option for murder when one wishes to have plausible deniability, yet Putin’s numerous deployments of poisons to date have been a comedy of errors and uncritical thinking, leaving in many cases a trail of tracks leading almost directly to him.

Russia’s brief flirtation with democracy ended in the year 2000 with the sudden resignation of Boris Yeltsin followed by the improbable election of Vladimir Putin with a reported 53% majority of the vote. At this time, the most recent known use of poisoning for assassination by Russian operatives was the 1978 killing of dissident Georgi Markov in London. Markov was jabbed in the thigh with a sophisticated umbrella tip injector that deposited a tiny pellet of the biological toxin ricin resulting in his death 3 days later.

Two years after Putin’s ascension to the Russian presidency, his regime was challenged by the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crises when at least 40 armed Chechen rebels seized several hundred hostages and demanded an end to the war in Chechnya. The Russian security forces responded by pumping an aerosolized solution of the μ opioid receptor agonists fentanyl, and/or carfentanyl into the building’s ventilation system, killing all of the rebels and at least 204 of the hostages. These drugs have been developed as useful anesthetic agents and are potentially reversible, but first responders from the FSB who stormed the theater wearing gas masks did not seem to have remembered to bring any of the lifesaving antagonist naloxone with them, resulting in the high civilian death toll.

Fentanyl and Carfentanil

Yuri Schekochikhin was a 53-year old investigative journalist  who was hospitalized suddenly in 2003 with symptoms of heavy metal poisoning, including a peripheral neuropathy.  He fell ill just a few days before he was scheduled to fly to the United States to discuss a corruption scandal involving Vladimir Putin with the FBI. Since Schekochikhin was treated at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow which is tightly controlled by the FSB, there was never a formal autopsy and his family was denied access to his remains. However, the clinical picture is consistent with an acute intoxication by the toxic heavy metal Thallium. From 2003 through 2004, this seems to have been Putin’s choice of poisons, as it was also implicated in the death of his former bodyguard Roman Tsepov in St. Petersburg. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya was also poisoned with a substance in her tea in 2004, which she survived, only to be gunned down in an elevator in 2006. Thallium was not a new or particularly innovative poison, as it had been tried several times in the preceding decades by a number of governments, including the French, Americans, South Africans and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Thallium (2)

However, a new poison emerged that same year in the bitterly contested Ukrainian election contest between pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, the hand picked favorite of Putin, and Viktor Yuschenko representing the Western-leaning independence parties.

 

Dioxin

Dioxin (2)

The dioxin molecule, pictured above, was already rather infamous following the accidental 1976 industrial release in Seveso, Italy that sickened thousands of people and killed birds and animals. However, sickened is the operative word here, since although dioxin is toxic, it isn’t very lethal. Yushenko’s poisoners did manage to inflict a painful and disfiguring case of chloracne on him, but he survived. He also provided an impressive number of pharmacokinetic samples to the doctors who treated him, allowing them to work out the metabolism and excretion routes of this compound using only a single, inadvertent human test subject. This peculiar and silly choice of toxins shows Putin for the amateur that he is, but also shows him struggling with an internal conflict. He wants his victims dead, but he cannot resolve whether he wants to kill them secretly and privately, or whether he wants the poison to make it clear that he is the killer and is behind the assassination of each person as the victims fall ill.

The botched poisoning of Viktor Yuschenko dramatized the incompetence that sometimes attends Putin’s attempts to poison for political purposes. However, rather than learning from this, the keystone cops theme expanded with the 2006 poisoning and eventual assassination of Alexander Litvinenko using the powerful radioactive alpha-emitter Polonium 210. In terms of the selection of the poison, this was a much more lethal and effective agent when compared to dioxin. Putin had been in power for 6 years, and must have felt secure enough to turn to the Kremlin’s secretive research institutes for poisoner’s advice. Polonium 210 is an almost ideal radioactive poison. Almost a pure alpha particle emitter, it cannot be detected inside a simple glass vial by conventional radiation detectors. It is estimated to be up to one trillion times more toxic that hydrogen cyanide, also known as prussic acid and the favored poison from more than one hundred years earlier. Once Litvinenko ingested the few micrograms of radioactive metal that killed him, his own body was sufficient to absorb almost all of the emitted radiation, and at first his doctors did not think he had radiation poisoning.

Polonium-210

Litvinenko was poisoned in a London sushi shop where he sipped the fatal dose of Polonium 210 in a cup of tea. The FSB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun who carried out the assassination had already left a trail of radiation in the airliner which carried them from Moscow through Berlin to London. They had spilled it in their hotel room and sopped it up with a bath towel. Lugovoi accidently contaminated a strip club and a soccer stadium that he visited on the same trip, and a flat where he stayed in Hamburg, Germany. Due to its unique half life, unusual trace impurities, and the scarcity of nuclear facilities in the world capable of purifying it, the source of the Polonium 210 was directly traced to the Russian nuclear complex in Sarov, about a day’s drive from Moscow.

So while Polonium 210 brought Putin an extremely effective agent, it once again foiled any attempt at secrecy, as it practically fingerprinted Russia, his regime, and him personally as having plotted and carried out the murder.

This brings us to the much more recent and sensational poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the town of Salisbury, England, and then the additional accidental poisonings of Charles Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, who blundered into residues of the poison used on the Skirpals in a discarded perfume bottle 4 months later. The poisonings first came to the attention of police on March 4, 2018 when the Skripals were noticed slumped over and unconscious on a public bench. These attacks represented the first open use of an advanced class of nerve gas agents specifically designed as chemical warfare agents in Russia before the collapse of the Soviet Union, called the Novichoks or “Newcomers.”

Novichok-234.JPGThis most recent application of chemical weapons for political ends by Vladimir Putin was my inspiration for writing this blog post, since my company Cayman Chemical has a deep working knowledge of the target of these agents, the essential neuronal enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE). Acetylcholine is a major neurotransmitter of the central and peripheral nervous systems, controlling many aspects of conscious activity including the activation of the heart, diaphragm and voluntary muscles. AChE acts to terminate these signals so that the system can return to a resting state. Simply put, AChE allows you the delicate motor control to breath in, then out, and to scratch your nose without punching yourself in the face. If AChE is inhibited or blocked, uncontrolled muscular contractions and spasms lead to cardiac and respiratory arrest, and death from circulatory and respiratory collapse soon follows.

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Sarin and other classical chemical warfare agents, as well as the advanced Novichok agents deployed in the UK, all act by irreversibly inhibiting AChE, reacting with a critical serine residue in the AChE active site with displacement of the fluorine and formation of an enzyme-phosphonate ester.

sarin

Many years ago, we at Cayman Chemical were introducing research tools for inhibiting a different enzyme when we prepared the compound MAFP, shown below. This compound is a potent, selective inhibitor of the cytosolic phospholipase A2 (cPLA2) that releases free arachidonic acid in response to cell signalling in inflammation. The mechanism is precisely the same as a nerve agent, in that the MAFP molecule irreversibly binds to an active site serine in cPLA2 and forms a phosphonate ester by displacement of fluoride.

mafp

At the time, we were concerned that this compound might be dangerous, so we performed an LD50 study in mice (unpublished) and found that mice survived the highest dose of 10mg/kg. This and other binding data indicated that MAFP was selectively targeting the cPLA2 enzyme and was not binding to the AChE enzyme as the nerve agents do.

As we look to the future, expect Putin to continue to try to perfect his poisoning as he remains plagued by performance issues with both his toxins and his FSB subordinates.* Look also for further refinement of the Novichok agents, as they proved much too stable, and ironically killed only one of three non-targeted, accidental victims several months after the unsuccessful assassination attempt on the Skirpals. All fluorophosphonates, whether they be pesticides, research tools, or chemical warfare agents, have three functional domains as illustrated below. Improvements could be made to both the enabler and guide, making a newer Novichok evaporate more quickly, polymerize and degrade on environmental exposure, be more difficult to prep for mass spec analysis, and not hang around for 3 months in a perfume bottle. Just sayin’, Vlad.

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This brings me to the conclusion of my first blog post for 2019, which will be a remarkable year by any measure. The use of chemical warfare agents should be unheard of, as proscribed in the Geneva Convention, but instead their use sometime in the new year seems likely. Russia and its ally Assad have made them a standard military option in the Syrian civil war, and North Korea joined Putin last year in favoring nerve agents as a method of silencing opposition leaders. The heads of state in some of the most powerful countries in the world seem quite unqualified for such a position. In the United State, we have an ignorant, narcissistic, compulsive liar as our president, who seems likely to ignite conflicts through his sheer stupidity and incompetence. In Russia we have a megalomaniac serial killer who experiments on citizens of other countries with his super-poisons and Machiavellian schemes for world dominance. Strangely, even Great Britain, attacked within the last 12 months, continues to welcome Putin’s attendance at global strategic summits such as the recently concluded G-20 meeting in Argentina. The coordinated public shaming, shunning, and eventual removal from power of Vladimir Putin is the only safe and reliable antidote to any of Putin’s Poisons.

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New paper provides no evidence that polar bears ate whale carcasses to survive Eemian interglacial

The scientific press is increasingly publishing baseless speculation mixed together with actual research papers including data and experiments. Such speculative papers usually have a blatantly political message which seeks to shroud itself under the cloak of Science, when in fact ithis cannot justifiably be done.

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Contrary to what the misleading press release implies, an entirely speculative new paper by polar bear specialists Kristin Laidre and Ian Stirling (among others) presents zero evidence that polar bear consumed whale carcasses during the last warm Interglacial (Eemian, ca. 115-130kya). And contrary to the impression that Eemian conditions were very challenging for polar bears, simulations from the single paleo sea ice simulation paper these authors cite show the ice-free season over most of the Eemian was less severe than today in the polar basin, with no reason for polar bears to scavenge extensively on large whale carcasses.

LaidreFEE_Wrangel Island scavenging_smaller Polar bears are shown scavenging on the carcass of a dead bowhead whale that washed ashore on Wrangel Island, Russia. Credit: Chris Collins/Heritage Expeditions

This is yet another paper posing as science co-authored by Stirling that uses anecdotal accounts of behaviour to send a message about evolutionary capabilities of polar bears (Stirling…

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Saturated Fatty Acids

This is a great blog – etymology allows you to follow thousands of years of unguided, random history and find it all preserved in the words you’ve always been saying.

Chemtymology

Before chemists had a detailed understanding of molecular structure, newly discovered chemicals were named on the whims of the discoverers. By the end of the 19th century the number of organic molecules known to science had started to increase dramatically, and the list of unconnected names that had to be remembered was getting longer and longer. It became apparent that this mess had to be sorted out, and the process of developing the systematic naming conventions that we have today began. However, despite being less descriptive, many of the old names are retained in the language today and referred to as trivial or common names.

Saturated fatty acids are a good example of a class of compounds where the systematic names are quite simple and easy to remember, being generally based on the Greek for the number of carbons, but common/trivial names are often used preferentially. This balance of use…

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Untangling the March for Science

If there was a single cartoon that captured the essence of the “March for Science”, this was it.

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The image of a sanctimonious Bill Nye grinning approvingly over some gender studies nonsense, while the true icons of science look down from heaven in horror and disbelief – that was priceless. I actually do make my living practicing science, but more important, I structure my life by practicing science. I know the difference between science and politics – and this march wasn’t about science.

 

Climate Etc.

by Judith Curry

Pondering some thorny issues regarding science, its place in society and its relationship to politics.

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Activism and the Academy

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

I am a member of a thing I call the Academy. It is a club, but without any roster, dues, or membership requirement – other than a preoccupation with science. It is non-exclusive, without judgment of any kind with respect to wealth, race, sex, creed, or place of origin. It owns no property, has no location, but it manifests itself continuously and repetitively in a thing called the scientific research conference. These meetings are something like the fruiting events of a slime mold, where thousands of fully separate and individual organisms (in this case humans, rather than amoeboids) come together and form a brief coalition with a specific goal, protocol, duration, and set of organizing principles.

The Academy convenes spontaneously whenever a topic within a discipline becomes of such current impact and importance that a critical mass of Academy members feels compelled to organize. In an ad hoc fashion, with funds begged and borrowed, a venue is located and a set of speakers selected and invited, and the Academy prepares to convene. While I have never witnessed a more tolerant and inclusive body, the Academy is still a meritocracy. No one travels thousands of miles to hear a bumbling fool who knows less than they do butcher a scientific subject. The speakers who are invited to present at a conference are typically and reliably the best in their field, irrespective of any other identifier. It’s like the NBA, only you substitute scientific mastery and communication for 3-pointer percentage and slam dunks. You go to a Cavs game to see Labron-caliber basketball, and you go to a Genomics meeting to hear Doudna-caliber science. Inclusion ratios are just an incidental finding.

Meetings of the Academy move forward under a strict but informal protocol that extends beyond the stipulation that you will not be invited to speak unless you are well established in your field and have clearly contributed novel discoveries to human knowledge. The academy will listen quietly and politely while you state your case and present your findings. They will openly challenge you and question you immediately thereafter but in an orderly fashion. Name calling and politics are considered gauche and are not tolerated, nor are personal, ad hominem, appeal to consensus, or all other manner of false reasoning attacks.

I value my membership in and the existence of the Academy more than any other single thing in my professional life. More than the diploma that I earned from the University of Michigan School of Medicine that hangs on my office wall; more than the small stack of peer reviewed, pre-printed articles with my name on them that I keep in my desk drawer. (Yes, I came of age in the time when articles were snail-mailed between colleagues because email had not yet been invented.) I value it because it just allowed me to be present last week in a beautiful setting in Lake Tahoe and to hear Robert Murphy from the University of Colorado describe the histologic visualization of brain tissue using laser desorption mass spec imaging of phospholipids.

From there, I flew to La Jolla where I learned from Dr. Razelle Kurzrock about precision cancer therapy and the genomic biopsy of breast cancer from human blood.

Kurzrock Presentation 1

I also listened to Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong, who like me are accepted and included in the Academy despite the fact that they have no new, original research to present when they arrive.

Yong 2

The Academy welcomes curiosity, a genuine interest in the truth, and a willingness to act as a conduit of that truth to the greater public. When I returned home, I added my participant’s badges from these meetings to a drawer containing literally hundreds of other icons of my past participation in a coming together of the members of the Academy in a civil and respectful fashion for the benefit of all of science. It is simply the best thing a civil society and a democracy can manifest, this utterly free and collegial exchange of knowledge and ideas, replete with remarks, retorts, and pointed questions that challenge the data, the models, and every other intellectual aspect of the topic up for discussion.

In spite of what I’ve just written, I absolutely dread what seems to be on the agenda for the next convention of the Academy, organized under the hashtag of #ScienceMarch. To begin with, there is something fundamentally wrong with the calling card for this convention. Conferences of scientists take place inauspiciously and quietly, in near seclusion, for a very good reason—because science is about thought, logic, and reason, and those activities tend to be degraded by noise, agitation, and political posturing. Rather than bringing together the best science has to offer, this conference seems to be dominated by those whose science is a bit dodgy. This convention has no coherent topic but seems to be simultaneously about dozens of purely political issues that science cannot un-complicate or reduce to some artificial policy-defined certainty.

The world does need to pay attention to scientists but not because we yell more loudly than some other special interest group—the world needs to value us because we invent things, correct things, and reveal past errors in our fundamental understanding. #ScienceMarch seems to be an immature, self-important shriek for attention. Scientists offer a way to a better tomorrow, as we have for centuries, bringing to humanity vaccines, antibiotics, computers, MRI scans, and millions of other clear advances in our well being. We inform the world when a species is suffering and in danger of disappearing from the earth as only those properly trained and practicing wildlife ecology are prepared and competent to do.

An argument has been put forward that this street protest is necessary, because those we have elected to political power do not properly respect us and our carefully accumulated evidence. This is an obvious reference to the Trump administration’s disdain for climate and immunization science. I have covered those two very different topics elsewhere, and they are important, but the hard truth is that simply by ignoring science, this administration has committed no crime. Nor have they discovered anything novel. Every president I can think of since Nixon, including Obama, viewed science cynically and manipulatively, to be supported, misquoted, and prostituted only when it helped their particular politics.

So how do I imagine the #ScienceMarch will go? In a word—badly. We are visually a very odd and identifiable group living in an age of unusual intolerance and bigotry. We have allowed a small clique of self-serving politically frenzied climatologists tarnish our scientific integrity with their outlandish claims of impending disaster and ecosystem collapse that never happens. This is the political faction who have been so rudely ejected from their positions of power by the election of Donald Trump, and this street protest seems primarily to be a knee jerk tantrum at this abrupt loss of status. Do scientists suppose that if we behave like a bunch of striking transit workers out to protect our cushy union jobs, we’re going to get more respect, not less? It seems more likely to me that those in power will notice how many of us seem to have gotten here on a VISA and will try to tighten that process beyond its current ridiculous restrictions. They will notice that we are well paid and generally live stimulating, comfortable lives and will lobby for cuts in government research spending, salaries, and graduate stipends. (Note the proposed $1.2 billion NIH budget cut.) In the worst case, there will be more violence against identifiable, highly-intelligent minority victims such as Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas City.

It’s hard to deny that America is in a state of political turmoil. We have elected as president a stupid man who believes he is smart, and the reflections of his ignorance and mendacity are radiating out through the executive branch of our government. Truth, forever the domain and highest object of science, is in short supply in the age of alternative facts. It is not as if we have never had as president a dishonest, paranoid, and criminally inclined person, as we did with Richard Nixon. I remember well the night when Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was following his nose closer and closer to the White House as he investigated the Watergate break in. That was the night I took to the streets myself, not as a scientist with a lab coat on, demanding more attention for myself or my profession, but as an outraged student protester who was determined to end the corruption infecting the highest office in the land. The music of that earlier time was of the Byrds singing “To Everything There is a Season.” That night, it was time.

If this protest is really about impeaching the president, then let that legal process proceed according to the constitution. If Trump abrogates it in the manner that Nixon tried to do, then a protest march by all Americans may become justified.  America has a lot of special interest groups. Do we really need a new, political entity defined only by the generality of “We study things?” What we really need is the calm, measured, self-critical voice of real science. This is the science that lives in the Academy. I worry that it will suffer a gruesome death in the street protest environment.

I’m frankly very torn as to what to do on April 22. Many of my friends will be taking part in protests organized by #ScienceMarch. I may join them, for a time, strictly as a scientist, to observe what is happening and see whether we, as scientists, have any business out on the street.  I hope that what I will see is the Academy asserting its true principles, as I have tried to describe them so far. I hope that what I don’t see is that we are on the verge of abandoning them.

 

 

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Utah

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Red dust from the desert filtered into the tent as the morning sun rose. At dawn the light was diffuse and the triangle of fabric enclosed space was peaceful. Then the first of the sun’s direct rays brushed the canvas with an incandescent glow. It lit up the dust particles as they drifted about on tiny currents of air. A boy of 19 crawled stiffly out from under the flap on his hands and knees. He stood up, stretched, and then drank long and sloppily from a plastic gallon water jug. Water streamed down his neck and dark stains spread down his T-shirt to his navel. He shuffled a few more steps from the tent, and urinated on a cactus, frowning at the paltry stream of salty orange liquid. Then he and went back for another long drink from the water jug.

He eyed the open tent flap and the form of his companion dozing under the bright red quilted down. There had been arguments yesterday, and he was both irritated that the guy was not waking up and glad not to have to put up with talking to him. Pulling a small notebook quietly from his side of the tent, he settled in the dry sand and opened it to read the last entry he had written. It was a self portrait from a day in August, the summer before, on the last day of his summer construction job.

Self Portrait (This part of the reading is best done while playing this Bob Seeger tune)

It was Friday afternoon. Sunlight filtered down through the aspen leaves, falling in soft patches on the grass. He lay back on the ground beside the trees with the tall grass swaying gently beside him, the pattern of sunlight and shadow flickering over his legs. His right hand rested easily on the handle of a battered chainsaw, its casing still hot to the touch, a fine blue tendril of smoke curling up from its oily muffler. The diesel engine of a backhoe throbbed in the distance. The aspen leaves trembled softly, whispering in quiet shock at the destruction that had stopped just short of their roots.

The grove where he lay stood at the edge of a wide swath of downed timber. A patchwork of stumps, broken branches, and bare logs stretched down one hundred yards to the wide brown expanse of bare earth that would soon be a dam. The backhoe was perched on the side of the mountain, preparing a trench for the placement of a pipeline. He watched through half-closed eyes as the silvery teeth of the shovel sliced into the earth, watched as the mechanical arm contracted, lifting a scoop of wet brown dirt up from the ground. Over and over the arm dipped and rose, slowly extending the trench that ran up the hillside to the aspen grove.

He was young and slender, with blue eyes that sparkled with a mixture of curiosity and confidence. His arms were smooth and brown, his hands hardened from a summer of labor. Pitch stains marred the battered yellow hardhat that was pushed forward to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun. A lock of dark brown hair tinted with gold pushed out from under its brim around his ear. A few stray chips of wood clung to the golden hair on the back of his arm. He brushed them away and sank deeper into the grass.

He was pleased with himself – pleased with life. Though his blue jeans were black with oil and his arms grimy with dust and sweat, there was no dirt in his soul. His smooth features and quiet smile betrayed wounds no deeper than the fine white lines from this summer’s scars etched on the back of his hand. His world was expanding, as was his own opinion of himself. This summer he had learned to cut a tree and make it fall where he wanted it. He had learned to work ten hours a day. He had learned that there wasn’t a lot that he couldn’t do. The weeks had passed and the trees had fallen, one after another, creaking and splintering in an explosion of dust and bark and flying branches. Through the felling of trees, he honed his skill with the saw, his judgment of their weight and balance. He had gotten good at something.

It was Friday, his work was done, and the world lay stretched out before him. He gazed over the gently nodding heads of grass at the mountains shimmering in the distance. He was unhurried, and looked with detached amusement at the dusty confusion of the construction site below him. He smiled softly and closed his eyes.

An ant ran quickly over his leg, as the backhoe droned on in the distance. He would lie here in the warm afternoon sun, do as he pleased, and think, among other things, that this would always be possible. When the backhoe stopped, it would be 5:00. Quitting time. Then he would get up, pick up his saw, and walk down the mountain for the last time. The aspen leaves rustled softly, and a patch of warm sunlight flickered over his face.

Utah, 7 Months later

On this morning, he slid the notebook back inside the tent flap. He put a full canteen of water and a candy bar inside a small day pack along with a camera and a flannel shirt. He glanced briefly at the smooth red sandstone formations of southeast Utah spread out around him, and at the white snowcaps of the Manti-La Salle Mountains far to the north.

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Then he glanced back at the tent, and with an adolescent smile imagined his companion waking in a few hours to wonder where he had gone. Not telling him was the first of many mistakes. A disaster is not usually the result of one egregious error. More often, it is the sequential accumulation of 4 or 5 of them, culminating in one that builds on the earlier ones in an irreversible slide into really bad things. He was about to find that out.

He started walking purposefully across the flat desert, heading toward a break in the low sandstone cliffs. The smooth braided pattern in the sand told that when there was water, it flowed in this direction. There were track trails and small burrows of kangaroo rats, and from time to time the straight, purposeful trail of a coyote. Eventually banks of eroded sand rose up on each side, and his trail became the bottom of a wide, sandy ditch. He began to find stones washed into piles along the sandbars. Most of them were grainy black and red basalts that looked baked from their years in the desert sun, but there were also milky white quartz and pink shards of chert. He picked them up, turned them in his hand, and tried to knock a few sharp flakes from some of them like an Indian would do. He had the vague idea that he would follow this dry wash until it reached the Colorado River, then follow the riverbank down into the town of Moab and get a hamburger. It was barely 10:00 in the morning, and he was hungry already.

2

He ate half the candy bar, took a long drink of water, and climbed up the side of the wash onto hard red sandstone. On both sides, the rock rose up in banded layers of ginger, mustard, and cinnamon for more than three hundred feet. From here he could see how the water had sliced through the cliff wall a mile or more ahead, leaving a notch. Through this window he could see far to the east, where some bright green cottonwood trees hinted that there was much more water. That was probably the Colorado River. He dropped back down into the wash, where the walking was easy for a while on the hard packed sand. But eventually the sand disappeared and he was forced to hop from boulder to boulder between towering walls that squeezed in closer from each side. Sometimes he had to lower himself by hand over the lip of a narrow chute, or slide down where the water had flowed and drop into the sand where it had formed a pool.

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He was mesmerized by the beauty of the sculpted and braided rock all around him. He stopped and took several pictures of the walls, the sky, and of his own footprints. He even took off his shoes, and made a purposeful track of human prints across a small basin of damp sand, and then photographed them.

footprints

The air was dry, juniper scented and warm at midday, and his T-shirt once again was spotted with dampness – this time his own sweat. It was mid afternoon when the narrow gorge suddenly opened up and he found himself on a gentle sagebrush slope a few hundred yards from the river. It was March, and the snowmelt was starting in earnest hundreds of miles upstream in Colorado. The river was dark, murky and pressing ominously at its banks.

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There was an old pinion pine there on the hillside, so he sat down in its shade and had the last half of the candy bar and most of the rest of the water. The last few swallows were left in the bottom of the aluminum container, just in case. As he surveyed up and down the river, he began to feel slightly worried. The sun was already low, sending long shadows from the cliffs on his right out across the rolling whitecaps. He could see cars, like small dots on the highway on the other side. But the town he was hoping to walk down to was nowhere in sight. He pulled on his pack, found a game trail that roughly ran parallel to the river, and began to walk rapidly. He amazed himself at how much distance he had covered. He quickly added several more miles, winding in and out with the course of the river. Glancing at his watch, he guessed that he had already traveled about twelve miles since he set off that morning. Suddenly he rounded another bend in the canyon and his spirits sank.

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As the river meandered back and forth between the tall cliffs that contained it, periodically it would sweep right up to the base of the sandstone and there would be no room for a trail or path of any kind between the cliff and the river. Such a place confronted him now. His shoulder brushed against the canyon wall as he stood on the last narrow ledge of rock. Ahead of him, the river hissed and whispered as it undercut the cliff. Behind him, a few willows poked up out of the thin strip of sandbar that ended at his feet. He looked carefully at the water, trying to imagine how deep it was, and how fast it would carry him if he tried to swim. It was cold in the shadow of the canyon towering above him, and he shivered. He retreated a few feet, scanning the sandstone wall that was pinning him against the river. For a brief moment, he considered backtracking all of the way up the river and into the gorge he had descended in the morning. But as he looked at his watch, he abandoned that idea. There wasn’t nearly enough time.

Almost without thinking about it, he started to climb. There were handholds, and then a small crack. Maybe he was telling himself that he needed to get a bit higher in order to see further downstream. There was something exhilarating about grasping a small handhold far above your head, and then hoisting your body up into space. He quickly ascended about thirty-five feet, and then came to a decision point. He was directly above the water. Any slip now and he would probably strike a glancing blow on the cliff, and then drown in the Colorado River. But to advance, he needed to surmount a small overhang. It extended out over his head about eighteen inches, making it hard to see what was above it. There was a good jam crack for one hand. He decided. He tightened his daypack on his shoulders, reached up with his fist and clenched it inside the narrow crack. Fear was gnawing at his stomach. He pulled himself slowly up, bumping his head against the overhang. His head was pushed sideways by the rock, his ear resting flat on his right shoulder. The rock bit into his knuckles. With his free hand, he reached out and above the overhang, grappling for a handhold. He found one. One more breath, and he released the fist from the jam crack. His body swung gently, sickeningly away from the cliff, and he pulled down with all his adolescent strength on the ledge above. His head rose up over the lip, and the aching hand that had been jammed into the crack below shot out to grip the easy corner of stone, waiting just where he needed it to be. With a quick heave he scraped his belly up over the edge and pulled himself away from the tug of the empty space and the river below.

He licked the blood off the back of his hand and fingers. The wrist quivered slightly as he held it against his mouth. A warm glow spread across his shoulders – partly the adrenaline of cheating death – but it was also the sun. What had not been visible from below was a wide defect in the canyon wall, a series of bowls and stair steps, and the setting sun was shining brightly above its edge. Turning to see it, he felt triumphant. With one final look at the blackness of the river swirling forty feet below, he turned and bounded up into the sunlight.

7

Where he thought he would go now, and what exactly the plan was to get to Moab, was never clear. The brain of a nineteen year old male lives in a stiff brew of hormonal substances, especially during physical exertion. He went mostly without having the sensation of thinking. It felt as if he floated by magic up to the canyon rim. Great circular bowls of sandstone were crossed, ledges scaled. Sheer cliffs, taller but less difficult than the first overhang by the river, fell behind him. The twilight sun made the canyon walls wild with colors, vivid crimson blending in with purples and cinnamon and pools of black shade. Flaming clouds reached out from the sky. Just as the sun was setting, he topped out and could see for miles in all directions. Including south, downriver, where the twinkling lights of Moab accented the canyon shadows – much farther away than he would have liked. There was no chance of continuing to follow the river. The jumble of ravines and cliff walls facing him from that direction was impenetrable. But there was one wide canyon, he would later know that it was called Courthouse Wash, and he could see it leading away from the city and back into the desert just to the west of him, where it dwindled into the slick-rock scrub. His plan, had there been enough daylight to execute it, might have worked. He struck out at a brisk walk, determined to find and drop down into the shallow headwaters of the canyon, much like he had followed a different canyon earlier in the day. He would simply follow the path of the water back down to the town.

8

The sun set, and a sudden chill came to the desert. He pulled his flannel shirt on and rolled up the sleeves. The canteen rattled – it was long since empty. With a growing sense of urgency he pushed past the clumps of brush. It began to be difficult to see the landscape in the distance, and then it was hard just to make out where to put his feet. The stars came out in a glorious sweep across the sky. A dome shaped mound of rock rose up in his path, and as he skirted around it to the left, he suddenly stopped short. In front of him, spread out on the ground, was the same sparkling display of stars. Against an inky purple backdrop, stars were glittering up at him from his feet. Hesitantly, he reached down, almost as if he feared that he might drop off into this space. And he touched – water. As soon as he saw the ripple spreading away from his hand, his brain knew once again where he was. Quickly dropping to his belly, he drank long and deep. He filled the canteen. And he realized that it was now completely, totally dark. He sat on the edge of an enormous sandstone bowl, with a calm reflecting pool of water in it, and wondered what he should do. From the feel of his legs, he had walked more than eighteen miles. His focus on getting to Moab was now blurred by fatigue.

The moon rose, not full but a solid quarter of bright white shining on the horizon. He could see his feet well, and began once again to walk through the night. The problem with night-walking is depth perception, and distance. Almost anything a few feet away gives off enough reflected light to discern where and what it is. But the amount of reflected light drops away with the cube of the distance. Very quickly, even things in full view but far enough away melt into the darkness. Objects in the shadows cannot be seen at all. As an area of darkness appeared in front of him, he could not tell at all if it might be a shallow depression or a gaping canyon.

His solution was to throw objects. Very soon after he left the reflecting pool of water, he came to what he guessed to be the dry wash he was seeking. Nearing the edge, he threw a fist-sized rock out into the night. It never landed. He found a foot long dead branch, and hurled that. Seconds later, he heard it clattering far below him. His hair bristled with cold fear. He was on the edge of a chasm several hundred feet deep. Edging back from the rim, he turned to the right and circled wide around it, coming back at least half a mile further upstream. When a dark abyss blocked his path, he stopped short and threw test objects. Several times his small missiles impacted immediately, and he skidded down into a shallow dip and continued along his way. The moon rose higher, and he imagined that he could see further.

On his next approach to the canyon, he passed through a small V and saw a pair of rock towers, silvery in the night, flanking him on both sides. He was tired, frustrated and hungry. He sat down on his heels and edged much further toward the black nothing facing him before launching a test rock. For two, three seconds – nothing – and then a hollow boom as the rock splintered in the depths. He gasped and clenched his teeth, because his feet were slipping down on the steeply curved rock. For a few seconds, he hung in pure equilibrium with friction and gravity – then a few inches at a time, he scraped his way up and away from the brink.

By this time he was muttering to himself. He was shivering with cold. His legs ached. He turned one more time to the right and circled away and then back toward the canyon. On this last approach, he was encouraged to see the unmistakable branches of a cottonwood tree piercing up from the dark. What he did then – how close he edged out into the night – what objects he threw – no one knows, because he cannot remember. There was an ominous, slow slide that accelerated past the point of stopping. He flipped from his back to his front, raking the cliff with his hands, and the flesh was rasped away from his fingertips, the nails splintering into the night. A long and silent drop through space ended with a crushing impact and a flash of pain through his left leg. There were more thuds as he cartwheeled away from the rock, and a sudden stop as his body wedged on an outcrop. Thinking it all over, he lifted his head slightly and felt his body wrenched sideways. Now he was falling horizontally, and that is how he landed. His head plowed into the ground with an audible splat. He had landed in shallow water. In shock, he leaped up and was suddenly hobbling as he began to see that his left leg did not work at all. Soaking wet, he staggered perhaps fifteen feet through slithering bulrushes and collapsed on his back. There he lay for the rest of the night.

There were only two things he could do. Hold his leg up, his knee curled over his stomach, to find some position where it caused him less pain. And shiver. Still wet in the thirty-degree desert night, he was wracked at once with shivering so violent that he could scarcely draw a breath. He pulled bullrushes from both sides and tucked them under his back to lift it off the damp sand. The moon crossed the narrow slot of night sky above the canyon walls. Coyotes howled straight above him, where his trail ended at the rim. His teeth rattled in their sockets. For hours, he shook like an epileptic, hissing for breath, unable to move. His eyes were clinched tight. There was no need to open them for the same view of black stone walls and a narrow strip of starry sky. His mouth gaped open in shock and exhaustion when finally he saw dusky red stone and a pearl grey sky. He had survived the night.

Still shivering violently, he began to slide backwards on his tailbone away from the wash. An hour and perhaps twenty feet later, he came upon his backpack. He strapped it on backwards, covering his stomach, and it was then that he noticed his arms. His flannel shirt sleeves had nearly been severed at the elbows from impacts with the rock. Black rivulets of dried blood showed through the tears. He ripped the sleeves free, and then slid his raw palms into them, clenching his fists to make them stay. Blood soaked out into the cloth, and they were soon glued into place by a crude cement of dried plasma and sand. With better protection on his hands, he could push down harder with them, still backing away from the puddle of water in the bottom of Courthouse Wash, now crusted with a thin film of ice. He began to bump up over hard sandstone. His neck, wrenched by the impact, ached and burned as he tried to look behind him to pick a path up the smooth rock and toward a juniper tree sprouting above on a small rise. The sun was sliding down the far canyon wall, glowing orange in the midst of the cool morning shadows. He could see that eventually, it would reach the flat rock and the tree just above him. All his energy was focused into dragging himself into the warmth of that yellow glow. And every few feet, despite all his skill, his swollen left leg would impact something with a few ounces of force. He would collapse and groan, grasping his thigh above the knee with both hands as if to choke the nerves that were feeding him this agony. Slowly the throbbing would subside, and his head would clear enough to consider moving on. This went on for hours, and the rock was well warmed by the time he slid fitfully out of the shadows and collapsed near the tree.

9

After thirty minutes in the morning sun, his body finally relaxed. He peeled away his flannel shirt and stretched it out flat on the rock to dry. It was now a short-sleeved flannel shirt, with a rip from the armpit to the hip, but it was the only warm clothing he had. His left foot was screaming from the constriction of his shoe, so many painful minutes where devoted to loosening the laces and pulling them out. Weakness overcame him frequently, and he would simply lie back on the ground for five or ten minutes before rousing himself and continuing with these small tasks. The shoe was finally loose, and he let it drop to the ground. He began to roll the sock down toward his ankle, but could not finish. The sock was imbedded in the flesh of his leg, which was swollen at the ankle to the size of his thigh. Where he could unroll the sock, it left a crisscross pattern of cotton in purple green skin that immediately oozed a yellow sticky fluid. Any slight torque or pressure on it sent bolts of pain shooting up into his brain.

He could not see it, but the smaller bone in his leg, the fibula, was just a chain of fragments, none of them more than an inch or two long. The tibia, the large bone, was shattered at the end and one of the pieces was protruding inward where the knobby ball of his old ankle had once been. Over time, a purple stain began to form there that soaked through his tightly stretched sock.

Film.jpg

He took the camera from the pack, rewound and removed the film, and unscrewed the lens. It was his brother’s camera. For a few moments he felt badly about damaging it. He set the film out on a small sandstone table. He was already beginning to think that he might die, and he felt good to have left his own footprints on the last frame of film that he had taken. He built a small wall of rocks around the bright yellow and black cylinder, and scratched an arrow in the rock, pointing down the wash, where he had already determined that he must go. Canyon wrens called from the cliffs, with a slow, descending song that sounded like a windup toy running out of energy. It was a parody of his own actions, stirring into life and then slumping over, stilled by exhaustion.

Pulling together some withered weeds and scraps of twig and bark from the juniper, he focused the camera lens on them. Gradually they heated, then smoked, and he had a small yellow flame. The smoke was acrid in his nostrils, and he panicked as he realized he had no more wood. He flailed about on his back, scraping at anything flammable within reach. But he could not find enough wood. His little fire burned, ate through the small sticks that he had managed, and died. He slumped back, disappointed but secure in the knowledge that he could do this, and would not be cold another night.

By now the sun was high overhead, and he began to need shade more than warmth. The skin was wearing away from his back and hips, but this was still the only way he could move without jarring his leg unbearably. So he skidded along on his tailbone until he was under the shadow of the tree. Leaning against it, cushioned by his daypack, he fell asleep for the first time. When he awoke, the canyon was in shadow, and the edge of the sunlight was twenty feet above him, on the ledge where he had lodged briefly before the last part of the fall. He realized that he could only start fire for those few hours each day when the sun was directly overhead, shining on the floor of the wash. The prospect of another cold night in the bulrushes drove him to move now.

He stuffed the camera and its components back into the backpack. Scuttling back into the wash, he dragged himself to the puddle and drank from it. It was easy to lay the canteen on its side, let it fill, and then drink without getting wet again. It was surprisingly cold and clean tasting water. For the first time since he had defiled the cactus more than a day ago, he needed to pee. But in the only position his leg could tolerate, it would go all over his stomach. With an infinite amount of care, he tilted himself to one side, and made a round, foaming puddle in the sand right next to his hip. It was so salty it burned, and seemed to be the color of root beer. But something in this simple act confirmed for him that he was gaining strength. His body was functioning, adjusting. Even his swollen leg seemed to be forming itself into a sort of turgid, sturdy cast.

He strapped the pack onto his belly, and set off down the wash like a crab. His injured leg was held high, his one good foot thrusting forward alone. He would lift his butt until it came up against the back of his ankle, shoving with both palms pointed backward. Each repetition of the motion gained him about eighteen inches…and so he continued, collapsing briefly from time to time to rest. The leg was quite hard now, and the color of ripe plums. It did not hurt as much anymore.

The sunlight rose up the wall nearly to the canyon rim and became fiery red, although the sky in the slot above him was just a cool blue. The floor of the wash was now solid, sculpted sandstone. It curved into bowls and half circles, dropped over brief sills and waterfalls that made his insect-like crawl difficult. A clump of cottonwoods sprouted from one wall. There in front of them, a bathtub-sized depression had been carved by the running water. It was half filled with sand and wind drifted leaves. With darkness coming swiftly, he realized that this was his best chance to survive the night. Between the trees and the base of the cliff were more dry leaves. He scooped them with his hands, kicking them with his good foot, and shuffled them one small bunch at a time into the bathtub. Within an hour, he had a blanket of leaves almost a foot deep.

As he dropped into the leaf pile and covered himself, it was instantly clear that this would be a better night. He was already warm from the last few hours’ exertion. Under the leaves, he could not believe the warmth that his body seemed to be generating. Sweat ran down the back of his neck. He moved the backpack around and made a small pillow of it, and sat waiting for the darkness. It came quickly. A few hours after sunset, he could tell that the moon had risen because the turrets and rim rocks of the canyon above him seemed to be lit with a pale white spotlight. He suddenly noticed twin rock domes high above him, with a narrow V-shaped groove between them. They perched on the canyon rim, and there was a wide circular undercut that reached up from hundreds of feet below. Its top curved like an arch, creating a mantle perhaps thirty feet tall and ten feet thick for the towers to stand on. His spit turned dry in his mouth as he recognized, from the floor of the wash, a place he had been early the night before. It was the place where he had almost been unable to pull himself back; where he had hung in the balance with gravity, straining with his clenched fingers to get a grip on the smooth, curved sandstone and get away from the edge. He imagined how tiny he must have looked from here, perched on the rim. His eyes followed the smooth, sweeping path his body would have taken, arcing out from the undercut edge of the cliff, and finally impacting after 250 feet on a jumble of sandstone blocks the size of washing machines just a few yards away. He felt sick. Long gone was the euphoria of the climb out of the Colorado River. Forgotten was the magic scene of stars dancing on the floor of the desert. His stomach was a clinched knot. His mind was now much more focused, clear and rational. His liver was furiously making glucose from the amino acids streaming back from his wasting muscles and his injuries. His brain helped conserve this energy by thinking slowly, and only about immediate survival. He piled the leaves more closely around him, and watched the moonlight inch its way down the canyon wall. He slept as well as anyone with a broken leg does. It was scarcely cold at all.

In the morning he waited in the leaf bed until the sun was almost down to the floor of the wash. Twice, he heard the sound of an airplane. The aircraft and its buzzing drone grew louder, then faded, without anything ever coming into sight in the narrow slot of sky between the canyon walls. It was clear that he was almost hidden in the bottom of the wash. No one would find him unless they walked up the canyon on foot. He had to get moving.

He crawled to a pool where the water emerged from the sand to flow freely down the canyon. Once again, it had crusted with ice. He pulled out his pack and took stock of himself. He had one shoe, a camera, and a canteen. He soaked each of his stinging hands in the pool until the sandy shirtsleeve bandages came loose. There was no skin on the ends of his fingers, but dark scabs had begun to form. He rinsed the blood and dirt from the damp cloth, squeezed it dry and clasped the makeshift bandages again in his clenched fists. Gingerly, he lowered his left leg into the freezing water and let the cold dull the pain. It suddenly seemed important to get off the tightly stretched sock and get a better look at his ankle. Tugging at the toes and rolling down from the top, he was able to loosen the fabric slightly. There was a sharp sting as the last resistance gave way. He could see that most of the skin on the inside of the ankle had peeled away with the fabric. What remained was a tightly swollen mass of purple tissue, senseless to the touch, and glistening like plastic except where the skin was broken and honey colored liquid was oozing quietly into droplets.

He moved up to a flat ledge above the pool, rolled onto his side, and let the ankle bake in the sun. A thin high overcast had developed, and he could no longer focus enough heat from the camera lens to burn anything. A few brown charred spots were made on a couple of leaves – but no fire. Again he slept, but was awakened by the whump-whump of a helicopter coming in very close to him. He jumped up, struck the broken leg on the ground, screamed, and collapsed. Turning his head, he saw the machine for a brief second as it crossed the canyon several hundred yards above him. The sound echoed for a minute off the canyon walls, faded, and the silence returned.

Emotion is an expensive thing when you have not eaten for several days. He only let the despair of having missed the helicopter sink down into his mind for a short time – then he pushed it away in favor of the optimism that people were actively looking for him. Darkness was coming, so he scooted back to the pool for more water. Both days since the fall he had spent several hours sleeping on the flat sandstone in full sunlight. It kept him warm, but was severely dehydrating. As he backed away from the pond, a small toad blundered out of the dry grass in front of him and he stamped on it with his good foot. He held the limp body in his fingers for a few moments, thinking he should eat it. It did not look remotely appetizing. He sniffed it, then threw it into the sagebrush. Later as he shivered under the blanket of leaves in the stone hollow, he wondered if it had been smart. He could lie on his right side now, just resting his left leg on a cushion of leaves piled over the right leg. It took the weight off his tailbone, and let him take short naps. In between, he listened to the pack rats rustling under the ledge above him, and stared up at the place where the two towers stood like grave markers in the moonlight. His body felt cold to him on this night, not warm like the night before. He noticed that his fingers were quivering as he held them clasped under his armpits. It was not explosive shivering like the night he had been wet. It was more like a gentle seizure that would not go away. He rocked his lower jaw back and forth, clicking his molars to the rhythm of “American Tune”, a song by Paul Simon. He ran over and over the verse that said, “And I dreamed I was dying. I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly, and looking back down at me, smiled reassuringly…” Then his perspective changed, and he was sitting back up between the twin towers, he had both of his shoes on, his left leg was fine, and he was watching the small lump of leaves far below him, shaking gently in the moonlight. He stayed there for the rest of the night, without pain, and without hunger. Only when he awoke did he find himself once again in a bowl in the rock filled with crumpled dry leaves.

As a thin grey light came back to the canyon next morning, a grim determination came over his mind. He climbed up out of the depression and rose up on his one good foot. Searching out a path, he hopped on one leg, and very quickly covered forty yards. Sinking to the ground, he traversed some broken boulders with his slower crab walk. As soon as he reached flat ground, he rose up again and hopped one-legged. Relentlessly, he drove himself down the canyon. It was more than a mile. Maybe it was 10:00 am when he rounded a curve in the wash and the right hand wall melted away, opening up into a wide, sand covered valley. He was crab walking around some sage clumps, heading for the center of the open space when he heard the helicopter. It was coming directly up the wash from the Colorado. In seconds it thundered into sight directly in front of him, and settled immediately down onto the dusty bank a few hundred feet away. He covered the intervening space so quickly on one foot that he was banging on the clear plastic door even before the pilot could open it.

All he could remember of the helicopter ride was how short it was, and how the pilot offered him a cigarette. He did not want a cigarette. But it made him angry that he had to be picked up by a helicopter when he was only half a mile from the town. He wanted to have made it there on his own.  At the hospital, he listened in disbelief as the doctor informed the staff and his family that his stomach would not be able to eat food, and that he could only be given coffee to drink. He did not want coffee. A hamburger and coke found their way into the room under a jacket within an hour, and as he ate this first meal, he rejoined the rest of the world.

But the person who came back into the world was not the same one that had picked up a chainsaw and started to cut trees ten months before. Some of the same Indians who inhabited this desert before the white man had a tradition of sending their young males off alone, intentionally, to discover for themselves what they could be. Over a time of 3 or 4 days without food, a vision called the Weyekin (from the native language of the Nez Perce) would reveal itself. The Weyekin helps to center the young male into his world and lets him understand the correct position for him within the tribe and the environment around him. This tradition must have had a high level of mortality, but perhaps there is also some benefit to this culling and seasoning of young men.

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